Sometimes we forget that the instruments of the orchestra actually had to be invented. The oboe, for instance, didn't take its bow until the late 17th century. The Museum of Fine Arts opened its concert season on Sunday with a reminder: the Boston Museum Trio and Baroque oboist Gonzalo Xavier Ruiz providing the latest sounds, circa 1700.
The trio first played music of Buxtehude, the fifth of his Op. 1 "Sonate a due." Laura Jeppesen's viola da gamba, usually joined at the musical hip to John Gibbons's harpsichord, stepped into a more individual role: In her contrapuntal colloquy with Daniel Stepner's violin, one could hear Buxtehude exploring the contrast between the bright violin and its larger, more soft-spoken cousin. Stepner then took the lead in a Sonata in D Major (HWV 371) by Handel, using a fine-grained tone to spin broad melodies that would then break into rustic, vigorously bowed dances. The Vivace finale found Gibbons and Jeppesen in vigorous, propulsive support.
Ruiz joined the group for Telemann's Trio Sonata in G Minor (TWV 42:g5), the harpsichord-gamba pair being counted as a single instrument. The pairing of Stepner and Ruiz proved energetic, the two trading phrases in quicksilver badinage. The passionate back-and-forth of Telemann's opening foreshadows the dramatic slow movement: the sighing phrases and the pauses between them equally moving, framing an aria of Handelian nobility. The Allegro was swift and sharply accented; the surprisingly leisurely Vivace was seductively suave.
The difference in sound between the modern and the Baroque oboe is roughly analogous to the difference between CD and vinyl. The older instrument has a softer edge but a warmer mid-range, with a greater variety of timbre in the progression from horn-like loudness to veiled softness. Ruiz exploited it all in a Bach sonata (BWV 1035) - transcribed and transposed from the original flute - packing interpretive nuance into each phrase and producing a truly singing tone. The instrument seemed an extension of his voice.
After a Bach violin sonata (BWV 1023) - Stepner once again alternating between a ballerina's lilt and a hoofer's athletic effort - the whole group finished with another transcription, Bach's Trio Sonata (BWV 525), originally for organ. Even more so here, Ruiz and Stepner happily goaded each other into finding new expressive mutations for each phrase, as Gibbons and Jeppesen coxed them home, ending with a bouncy, just-this-side-of-a-hoedown Allegro flourish.