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Anton REICHA (1770 - 1836): "Chamber Music for Bassoon and Strings"


rec: Jan 2011, Moculta (South Australia), Gruenberg Church
Ars Produktion - ARS 38 091 (© 2011) (49'53")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Grand Quintet for bassoon, 2 violins, viola and cello in B flat; Variations for bassoon, 2 violins, viola and cello

Jane Gower, bassoon; Madeleine Easton, Alice Evans, violin; Galina Zinchenko, viola; Catherine Jones, cello

In the second half of the 18th century Bohemia was the breeding ground of a large number of musicians who were to play a prominent role at the European music scene until the first decades of the 19th century. One of them was Antonin Reicha, generally known by his German name Anton. At an early age he lived with his uncle Josef, a cellist and composer. When Josef moved to Bonn in 1785 to become director of the Hofkapelle, Anton played the flute in the orchestra. Ludwig van Beethoven, born in the same year as Reicha, was playing viola in the orchestra, and this resulted in a lifelong friendship.

In 1794 Reicha moved to Hamburg when the French armies invaded Bonn. Here he decided to give up performing. From that date he concentrated on composing, teaching and studying mathematics, philosophy and music. His interest in composing operas brought him to Paris in 1799 where he hoped for some success in this department. That never really happened as his operas were tepidly received. There was much more interest in his theoretical writings, for instance about the fugue, and his own musical illustrations.

For some years he worked in Vienna, where he renewed his friendship with Beethoven and Haydn. There he wrote a large amount of chamber music. After his return to Paris he had a number of pupils who were all to become accomplished musicians. They were soon appointed as professors at the Conservatoire, and they must have had considerable influence on the appointment of Reicha at the same institution. He soon earned the reputation of being "precise, logical, efficient and strict", as Peter Eliot Stone writes in the article on Reicha in New Grove.

Today Reicha is mostly known for his wind quintets. He is rightly considered the founder of this genre. In his own time these quintets caused great excitement. In 1815 a special concert series was organised to perform all the pieces in this genre he had composed. Between 1811 and 1820 he wrote 24 quintets for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. But there is much more in his oeuvre, and this disc presents two specimens of his chamber music for a wind instrument and strings. The disc begins with Variations for bassoon and strings. I assume that the title as given in the tracklist - Variations for solo bassoon, accompanied by 2 violins, viola and cello - is original. It shows exactly how the roles are allocated. The bassoon is at the centre, and the strings only accompany, although they play ritornelli between the variations. The bassoon part is quite virtuosic, and Reicha must have had a very skilled player in mind when he composed this piece.

In the Grand Quintet the bassoon and the strings are treated more equally, although here it is the first violin which has a prominent part to play. That is especially the case in the first and last movements, where the violin often introduces a motif which is then imitated by the bassoon. In this piece the bassoon part is again virtuosic. Whereas in the Variations the bassoonist has some very high notes to play, the Quintet contains some notes at the very bottom of his instrument's tessitura. In particular in the opening movement - with more than 15 minutes by far the longest of the four - the bassoon part includes some wide leaps. It is an indication of the quality of Reicha's music that this is a captivating movement despite its length. The second movement is a lento arioso, with the fragrance of opera about it, whereas the menuet is a scherzo-like piece with some humorous elements. The finale is an illustration of Reicha's craft, with its many modulations. The bassoonist gets another chance to show his prowess, and the first violin also plays a major role.

Reicha is not badly represented on disc, but the interest in his music is a bit one-sided: it is mainly his wind quintets which are recorded, and most of his music is available in probably one or two recordings. So far period instrument ensembles haven't really explored his music. In general the music written in the early decades of the 19th century in Paris has escaped the attention of period instrument performers. It seems that is about to change. Recently several recordings with music by composers from that time have been released, for instance with music by Onslow. This disc is another sign of this development.

Jane Gower is a celebrated performer on period bassoons who has collected a number of original instruments which she also uses in performances. She is the principal bassoonist of the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Révolutonnaire et Romantique. She recorded Mozart's bassoon concerto as well as concertos by Franz Danzi. With her ensemble Island she recorded music for bassoon and strings by Danzi, Devienne, Hummel and Krommer. These are all very fine recordings, which bear witness of her technical brilliance. But above all they are very good and musically captivating performances on an instrument which is mostly not at the centre of attention. The use of a period instrument is not only of historical interest. It serves the music, as the bassoons of the time produce different colours in the various registers, and composers made effective use of that. There is a congenial partnership between the members of the ensemble. The first violin, Madeleine Easton, deserves special mention for her fine playing in the Grand Quintet.

It will be hardly necessary to encourage lovers of the bassoon to purchase this disc. They will not be discouraged by the short playing time which is the only regrettable aspect of this production. But I am sure everyone will enjoy this recording, because of the music and because of the fine playing. There is every reason to look forward to upcoming projects from this ensemble.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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