musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Music for the bassoon of the 18th and 19th centuries

[I] "The Bassoon Abroad - Foreign Composers in Britain"
Ensemble Chameleon
rec: Sept 5 - 7, 2012, Haardt, Evangelische Kirche
Carus - 83.463 (© 2014) (69'25")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list
Score Galliard

John Ernest GALLIARD (1687-1749): Sonata I in a minor [1]; Sonata II in G [1]; Sonata V in d minor [1]; Sonata VI in C [1]; The Advice; John Frederick LAMPE (1702/03-1751): The Maid's Request; The Solitary Relief; Luigi MERCI (Louis MERCY) (c1695-c1751): Sonata I in B flat, op. 3,1 [2]; Sonata III in E flat, op. 3,3 [2]; Sonata IV in g minor, op. 3,4 [2]; Sonata V in c minor, op. 3,5 [2]; trad (Scotland): The Bush aboon Traquair; The Flower of Edinburgh; The Lass of Pattie's Mill

Sources: [1] John Ernest Galliard, Six Sonatas for the Bassoon or Violoncello with a Thorough Bass for the Harpsicord, 1733; [2] Luigi Merci (Louis Mercy), VI Sonate a Fagoto o Violoncello, col Basso Continuo, op. 3, c1735

[II] "Jean-Nicolas Savary - The Stradivari of the Bassoon"
Lyndon Watts, bassoon; Marion Treupel-Franck, flutea; Edoardo Torbianelli, fortepiano
rec: Feb 2013, Bern, Hochschule der Künste
Pan Classics - PC 10306 (© 2014) (59'49")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list
Score Beethoven

Ludwig VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827): Trio for flute, bassoon and keyboard in G (WoO 37)a; Anton REICHA (1770-1836): Duo for bassoon and pianoforte in B flat; Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868), arr Frédéric BERR (1794-1838): La gazza ladra (Cavatina, arr for bassoon and pianoforte); Giuseppe TAMPLINI (1817-1888): Fantasia di Bravura on themes from Donizetti's 'La fille du régiment'

Discs with music for bassoon don't often land on my desk. I am not sure what is the reason for that. It is possible that I just don't get them but as I publish a list with new discs almost every month I should at least be aware of such discs being released. There are several excellent players of the historical bassoon around, but they don't seem to make recordings frequently. There is certainly no lack of repertoire, but it is telling that I was a little surprised to read of so many pieces in the entry on the bassoon in New Grove. I have to conclude that a large part of the repertoire mentioned there has never made it to disc, at least not on period instruments.

That is a big shame, because the bassoon may play a considerable role in the basso continuo practice, especially in music for woodwind, but it is capable of much more as the discs reviewed here show. The German composer and writer on music Schubart confirmed this stating that the bassoon was able to "assume every role: accompany martial music with masculine dignity, be heard majestically in church, support the opera, discourse wisely in the concert hall, lend lilt to the dance, and be everything that it wants to be". The theorist Johann Mattheson referred to its role as an accompanying instrument and added that it was reckoned easier to play, "not calling for the same Finesse or ornamenting", but "anyone wishing to distinguish himself on it in the upper register with delicacy and speed has a considerable task".

The bassoon is generally considered as having its origin in France where it was developed by the Hotteterre family. During most of the 18th century it had four keys. In the second half of the century the number of keys was extended, and this development went on in the 19th century. The Carus disc includes music for the four-key bassoon composed in England, but mostly by composers who were born elsewhere.

John Ernest Galliard was born in Celle, where he received lessons on the flute and the oboe from a French member of the Celle court orchestra. He joined the orchestra himself in 1698, but when it was disbanded in 1706 he went to England where he joined the chapel of Prince George of Denmark, Queen Anne's consort. However, the largest part of his career he spent playing the oboe in the Queen's Theatre and composing music for the theatre. His instrumental works take a small part in his oeuvre. Among them are six sonatas which were published in 1733; four of these are recorded by the Ensemble Chameleon. They are scored for either bassoon or cello. This is often the case with sonatas for bassoon, for instance six sonatas by the French composer Antoine Dard and the six sonatas by Luigi Merci from which the artists also have selected four. This suggests that the bassoon was not that often played by amateurs which were the main market for printed editions of chamber music.

Galliard's sonatas are in four movements, except the first which comes in five. The titles of the movements are all in Italian, but show quite some variety, such as alla ciciliana cantabile (Sonata II in G), spiritoso č staccato and hornpipe a l'inglese (Sonata I in a minor). Although he was a man of the theatre these sonatas are not particularly theatrical, but rather rooted in the style of the German baroque. The second movement of the Sonata VI in C, alla breve, is one of the most brilliant in these four sonatas.

Luigi Merci is a little less 'conventional', so to speak. Several sonatas are in three movements; of the four recorded here only the Sonata I in B flat has four. Not much is known with certainty about his identity. The name suggests that he was Italian, but it is also spelled as Louis Mercy, for instance in New Grove, which states that he was presumably of French birth. He was mainly active as a recorder player and a composer for his own instrument. The first two collections of sonatas were printed in 1718 and around 1720 respectively. The six sonatas for bassoon or cello op. 3 were published around 1735. Whether he had Italian roots or not, they show strong Italian influence, especially in their cantabilitŕ. There are also dramatic contrasts, for instance in the closing movement of the Sonata IV in g minor, where a dark-coloured minuet is followed by a lively presto, after which the minuet is repeated. The closing movement of the Sonata V in c minor has the same texture; the presto is quite virtuosic. The allegro from the Sonata I in B flat is one of the most brilliant pieces, the andantino from the Sonata IV in g minor one of the most expressive.

In the Sonata I we find a larghetto ala Scotseza which bears witness to the popularity of traditional Scottish music at the time. Various composers, including Italians such as Geminiani and Barsanti, were interested in this kind of repertoire. This disc includes some of such pieces which can be played on any kind of instruments. Two pieces are arrangements by John Frederick Lampe, another composer of German birth, born in Brunswick and settling in London in the mid-1720s. Like Galliard he was mainly active as a composer of music for the theatre.

The Ensemble Chameleon delivers outstanding performances. Jennifer Harris's interpretations are full of panache and zest and her colleagues follow her all the way. The result is an exciting disc, showing the capabilities of the baroque bassoon in full colours. The last track includes an encore, not mentioned in the track-list: the British national anthem, God save the Queen.

With the next disc we are in a different world, despite the fact that the bassoon has the centre stage once again. However, it is another bassoon which plays completely different repertoire. One of the leading players and builders of bassoons in the early 19th century was Jean-Nicolas Savary jeune. His instruments became so popular that in 1891 a certain Charles Russel Day called him "the Stradivari of the bassoon". Lyndon Watts plays a modern replica which comes as close as possible to an original Savary bassoon of 1823.

In the classical and early romantic eras the bassoon didn't play a major role, although some substantial works were written. These include solo concertos and concertante symphonies for professional players on the one hand and pieces by virtuosos for their own use on the other. The latter often had the character of showstoppers which allowed the composer/performer to demonstrate his skills. The Fantasia di Bravura by Giuseppe Tamplini is a specimen of such a piece. Opera melodies were especially popular, which is also expressed in the arrangement of a cavatina from Rossini's opera La gazza ladra by Frédéric Berr, a clarinettist by profession, who was born as Friedrich Beer in Germany.

The two main works are those by Beethoven and Reicha which can be connected through their friendship which dated from the time they both played in the court orchestra in Bonn. Beethoven played the viola, whereas Reicha was the principal flautist. It is not known for sure for whom the former composed his Trio in G which dates from 1786. One possibility is that he wrote it for a performance at the home of Duke Friedrich Ludolf Anton von Westerholt-Gysenberg who played the bassoon, whereas his son played the flute and his daughter was a piano pupil of Beethoven. However, others assume it may have been written for members of the court orchestra in Bonn, in which case Reicha must have played the flute part. The bassoon part must have been written for a skilled player as the range goes from low D to high C, whereas compositions in the classical period rarely go above high A.

Reicha composed various works with a part for bassoon (*); his Duo in B flat dates probably from between 1810 and 1815. Again, it is not known for whom it was written. In their liner-notes Sebastian Werr and Lyndon Watts write that the first movement is relatively simple with the exception of the coda which was added after the movement had been completed. This suggests that the player for whom it was conceived wanted it to be more challenging. That certainly goes for the closing rondeau which ends on the low E flat, the lowest note on the bassoon.

This is a substantial recording with two major pieces for bassoon of the classical period. This kind of repertoire is seldom performed, and that is unfortunate as this disc convincingly shows. The two showstoppers are of a different level but historically definitely interesting as they reflect an important aspect of concert life of the 19th century. Musically they are not of the same level as the Beethoven and Reicha pieces. They particularly gain from the use of period instruments.

The performances of all three artists are excellent, and it is very interesting to hear a copy of an instrument of such historical importance. It is a shame that it was decided to use a fortepiano which is far too late for most of the programme, a Rosenberger from around 1840. It can hardly do justice to the keyboard part of Beethoven's trio. Even for Reicha's duo it is not the most suitable instrument. For me that is a serious flaw in this production. Even so, because of the repertoire and the overall level of playing this disc can be recommended.

(*) More chamber music with bassoon by Reicha has been recorded by the ensemble island.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Lyndon Watts
Edoardo Torbianelli

CD Reviews