We owe the title of this month’s column to Johann Mattheson, 18th-century musical theorist and tastemaker, who opined in 1713 that “anyone who wishes to distinguish himself on the Proud Bassoon will find that elegance and speed especially in the high register will tax his powers to the full.” He also wrote that
It is, however, easier to play than the oboe, because it does not require the same finesse or manners (although other sorts are needed). . . . One has to depend especially with bassoons and oboes on good reeds, and the best maîtres labor to make them after their own embouchures, for a good reed is half the playing.
That squares with what I remember of one of my college roommates, a bassoon major who spent about half his time making reeds, testing them, cursing them, and making more—all in service to an instrument that few have ever called Proud.
People tend to associate the bassoon with Disney’s original Fantasia, specifically the Sorcerer’s Apprentice cartoon in which Mickey’s broomish helper marches to this comic, slightly grotesque tune:
The bassoon, “clown of the orchestra.” A deep-voiced double-reed descended from legions of Renaissance wannabes like the dulcian, curtal, and fagott—that last term used because the early bassoon looked like nothing so much as a “bundle of sticks,” due to the way its bore (the tube that maintains a resonating column of air within the instrument) doubles back on itself three or four times. If an oboe is “an ill wind that nobody blows good,” then the bassoon makes the same rude noises but at a lower pitch level.
But that is not the whole picture. The bassoon and its cousin the contrabassoon make inimitable contributions to symphonic timbre, whether as soloists or as part of a rich harmonic blend. Listen, for example, to this fleeting moment (at about 0’20”) from Brahms’ Symphony No. 1:
Or this less-fleeting bit of scoring from the Haydn Variations:
Those notes on the very bottom? In both cases, that’s a contrabassoon, which can play lower than any other instrument in the orchestra. Yes—lower than tubas, lower than double basses. (For a quick look at the New York Philharmonic’s contra player devising ways to get even lower, click here.)
Because I had grown to love the contra (more about this later), I did not hesitate recently when a rare opportunity presented itself: three new, extremely fine recordings of bassoon music. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, together these releases represent a virtual history of the bassoon. More to the point, they showcase the remarkable artistry of three outstanding young players. It was a joy to hear them hard at work. First up was—yes!—The Proud Bassoon: Virtuoso Works for Baroque Bassoon and Continuo (Linn CKD 435, SACD & download) from Peter Whelan, principal bassoonist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and founding artistic director of Ensemble Marsyas, an Edinburgh-based group focusing on 18th-century virtuoso wind music. (I’ve praised their recordings in this space before.)
How does one describe the sound of a Baroque bassoon? It is tempting to slip into wine-critic prose: if the sound of the modern bassoon tends toward dark chocolate with fleeting notes of blackcurrant or honey, then a good Baroque bassoon tone includes more prominent elements of lemongrass, tobacco, and pepper. In other words, the sound is reedier and rather more complex but retains a warmly burnished core. Listen:
The bassoon was gradually accepted into Baroque orchestras as a continuo instrument, i.e., something to reinforce the cellos and basses on the continuo, or fundamental bass line. But as bassoonists gained more facility in the upper register, they were able to recommend themselves as soloists, and a number of sonatas and concerti began to appear in the early 18th century. Whelan offers several such efforts on his recording, including attractive works by Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688–1758) and Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767). Here’s an Allegro from Fasch’s piece, which gives him ample opportunities to show off his formidable technique:
Meanwhile, in France the new galant style, slicker and simpler than the old Baroque manner, had made inroads. Whelan offers the two Opus 50 sonatas of Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689–1755) as representative of galant music for the bassoon.
On this recording, Whelan plays a Baroque bassoon built in 1994 by Peter De Koningh “after Prudent Thierrot – Paris c.1770.” He is joined by colleagues from Ensemble Marsyas: cellist Sarah McMahon, lutenist Thomas Dunford, and harpsichordist Philippe Grisvard. So rich is the sound they make (thanks, engineer/producer Philip Hobbs) that not until I had listened most of the way through did I realize that this is essentially chamber music. Its intimacy only deepens the pleasure of hearing it.
Lyndon Watts’ new recording, The Stradivari of the Bassoon (Pan Classics PC 10306) seems more like a conventional recital. On it he presents highlights of the solo bassoon repertoire from the early Romantic era: a youthful Beethoven trio with flute and piano (WoO 37), Anton Reicha’s Duo for Bassoon and Piano, and two sets of virtuoso variations on Italian opera themes. These last, by one Giuseppe Tamplini after Donizetti’s La fille du règiment and by Frédéric Berr after Rossini’s La gazza ladra, cannot help but strike me as typically hardy survivors of an era that produced many more such exercises. As a high-school clarinet “virtuoso” myself, I had to learn and repeatedly perform one, an extremely florid set of variations on “Caro nome” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. (At least I think it was “Caro nome.”)
The selling point on Watts’ album is that he is playing on the “first ever replica of a Savary classical bassoon.” Jean-Nicolas Savary jeune (1786–1853) was the most important and influential bassoon-maker of his day and long afterward. In their excellent notes, Watts and Sebastian Werr inform us that Savary’s design principles survived well into the 20th century. Savary based his instruments on those of his father and other late-18th-century basson craftsmen. They emphasized a more nasal timbre—which also lent the instrument more lyric capabilities—than their German counterparts, while over a period of 40 years also doubling the number of keys on the instrument. (Even then, technology marched ever onward.) Modern Swiss bassoon maker Walter Bassetto (!) has chosen an exemplary 1823 Savary bassoon as the model for the instrument Watts plays on this recording. (Bassoons, like oboes and clarinets, don’t last as long as violins or cellos—the human moisture associated with playing them tends to break them down in a few years. So no one is ever going to play an actual 1823 bassoon in public.)
Here’s a sample of the Rossini showpiece that ends Mr. Watts’ album:
As the end approaches the fireworks increase. Watts’ capable accompanist is Edoardo Torbianelli, playing a Rosenberger fortepiano (Vienna, c.1840). Everything else on the CD is nicely done too, although I suspect it will be of interest mainly to bassoonists. It’s a great advertisement not only for Mr. Watts, an Australian who’s currently principal bassoonist of the Munich PO, but also for Mr. Bassetto, who provided backing for the recording project.
One way that I know immediately when I’m hearing a great soloist is the quality of seemingly spontaneous invention that he or she brings to every phrase, every note of every gesture. Without ever overstepping bounds of good taste within the music’s overall mood and style, a real star will deliver something fresh in the line, a way of slightly emphasizing this note or that, a gentle pause or momentary vibrato, something that sounds as if it had just occurred to her. Newly minted, on the spot.
And of course all those little somethings must come off as utterly right—coherent, polished in presentation, alert and alive. Together they complement, reinforce, link up so that a great phrase becomes a great period, eventually a great movement, then a memorable evening. This doesn’t happen often. But when it does, you feel as if you could listen all night long.
That’s what I heard, and felt, when I slid Rui Lopes’ new solo CD Through Time (Solo Musica SM211) into my player last week. Mr. Lopes is, of course, one more bassoonist. No matter. He makes this instrument do whatever needs to be done, and more. Together with the English Chamber Orchestra, he creates lyric poetry, dry humor, passionate longing, dance tableaux—you name it.
Sorry, I know I’m gushing. All right, here are the facts: Music by Villa-Lobos, Jean Françaix, Mozart, Vivaldi, and Elgar (who was himself a bassoonist in his youth). Produced by Andrew Keener, engineered by Simon Eadon. Perfect balances, “presence,” imaging. Just enough hall in the sound to give it life. Close miking, but no dramatic inhalations or chronic sinusitis in evidence.
Here’s a little of the Villa-Lobos:
And the Elgar:
I loved this recording. Lopes, ably abetted by the ECO and its concertmaster Stephanie Gonley, ably makes a case for himself as the Joshua Bell of his instrument. Actually, it’s quite clear that he is the Rui Lopes of his instrument! (Or rather instruments—he switches between a state-of-the-art Heckel 13227 and a Baroque bassoon by Mr. de Koningh “after J. H. Eichentopf.”) Strongly recommended.
And now can we try on something lighter? The Bassoon Brothers are a Portland-based quartet that carries on in the spirit of Jake and Elwood but with a slightly broader musical range. I have admired their artistry, but from afar. That is, I always liked the idea of the Bassoon Brothers but hadn’t actually heard them play. Now I have. Their newest album, Escaped (Arundo ARCD 101) contains 23 selections, most of them brief. For bassoon ensembles, brevity is indeed the soul of wit. If you’re buying a BB record, it’s not because you want to hear a transcription of, say, one of the Beethoven Opus 59 string quartets. What you want sounds more like this:
Besides the Twenties and Forties Set, there’s a Gilbert & Sullivan Set, a Dance Set, a Country and Blues Set, a Surfer Set, and much, much more. Fun.
Or here’s a thought: you could get one or more of Susan Nigro’s fine discs. She is a contrabassoonist, an absolute master of her instrument. It is clear from her choice of materials, not to mention her utterly musical performances, that she is not out to make novelty records. She loves the contra and wants you to love it also. I was delighted to see Andrew Quint recommend one of her CDs, Little Tunes for the Big Bassoon (Crystal CD348), a while back, not least because it’s one of my favorites also. Here’s a sample, the Clarinet Polka done up for the un-clarinet:
And check out her entire Crystal catalog here. You can’t go far wrong with any of them. They are serious and musical and fun. Then, if your appetite for contra is not yet quenched, dig this Master Class in Contrabassoon from the London SO:
I was going to append a few more paragraphs here about great tubas and trombones, but you know what? They’ll keep. More low voices next time. Also, Four Farewells: Bach, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss. See you then.