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Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): Bassoon Concertos

[I] "Concerti per fagotto II"
Sergio Azzolini, bassoon
L'Aura Soave Cremona
Dir: Diego Cantalupi

rec: April 2011, Corticelle Pieve (Brescia), Madonna della Formigola
Na´ve - OP 30518 (ę 2011) (76'47")
Liner-notes: E/F/I
Cover & track-list

Concerto for bassoon, strings and bc in C (RV 470); Concerto for bassoon, strings and bc in C (RV 472); Concerto for bassoon, strings and bc in E flat (RV 483); Concerto for bassoon, strings and bc in F (RV 490); Concerto for bassoon, strings and bc in g minor (RV 496); Concerto for bassoon, strings and bc in a minor (RV 499); Concerto for bassoon, strings and bc in B flat (RV 504)

[II] "Concerti with bassoon II"
Frans Robert Berkhout, bassoon; Georgia Browne, transverse flutea
La Suave Melodia
Dir: Pieter Dirksen

rec: Sept 24 - 25, 2010 & Jan 5 - 6, 2011, Amsterdam, Waalse Kerk
Et'cetera - KTC 1428 (ę 2011) (71'46")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Concerto da camera for transverse flute, violin, bassoon and bc in g minor (RV 106)ab; Concerto for bassoon, strings and bc in c minor (RV 480); Concerto for bassoon, strings and bc in g minor (RV 496); Concerto for bassoon, strings and bc in a minor (RV 498); Concerto for bassoon, strings and bc in B flat 'La Notte' (RV 501); Concerto for two cellos [bassoon, cello], strings and bc in g minor (RV 531)c; Concerto for oboe [transverse flute], bassoon, strings and bc in G (RV 545)a; Concerto for two violins, strings and bc in a minor, op. 3,8 (RV 522) (larghetto, arr for violin solo, bassoon, violin, viola and bc)b

Franc Polman (solo b), Karen Segal, Rachael Beesley, violin; Annette Bergman, viola; Cassandra Luckhardt (solo c), cello; Marta Vicente, violone; Regina Albanez, theorbo; Pieter Dirksen, harpsichord, organ

Considering the small number of solo concertos for the bassoon from the baroque period the amount of Vivaldi's compositions for this instrument is remarkable. With 39 concertos for one bassoon this part of his oeuvre is the second largest of his instrumental output, after the concertos for violin. That is all the more notable as there is no concluding evidence that this instrument was played at the Ospedale della PietÓ. Vivaldi wrote the largest part of his instrumental works for the girls of this institution.

Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot, in his liner-notes to Azzolini's recording, points out that the bassoon concertos all date from the later part of Vivaldi's career. At that time he was in close contact with musical institutions outside Italy, in particular in Germany and Bohemia. He assumes that a number of bassoon concertos could have been written for Anton M÷ser, the bassoonist of the court orchestra of Count Morzin, to whom Vivaldi also dedicated his opus 8 concertos. This suggestion is supported by the fact that several other members of the orchestra also composed bassoon concertos which show Vivaldi's influence. Moreover, as Pieter Dirksen writes in the liner-notes to his recording, the concertos are all preserved in a single manuscript, which "strongly suggests a single aristocratic recipient, considering that such a large group of concertos would have cost a small fortune".

As far as we know the composer didn't play the bassoon himself. Even so, he must have had a detailed knowledge of the characteristics and capabilities of the instrument, as his writing is highly idiomatic and he uses the technical possibilities to the full. That is combined with his usual preference for theatrical writing, as comes to the fore in almost all instrumental works from his pen. That said, several concertos on the disc which Sergio Azzolini has recorded, show a more than average level of dramatic activity. Talbot specifically points out the connection to opera of the Concerto in E flat (RV 483): the first movement shares its opening with an aria in the opera Semiramide, and in the second movement he sees an operatic arioso. The Concerto in B flat (RV 504) also springs to mind: in the first movement the strings open the procedings, but immediately the bassoon boldly intervenes with a descending figure which returns at several moments during the movement. The closing allegro also shows a particular theatrical character.

The concertos are very different in form, for instance in regard to the role of the strings. In some movements they only play the ritornellos whereas they keep silent during the solo episodes. In the Concerto in F (RV 490) they mostly continue to play during the bassoon solos. On the other hand, several concertos have a slow movement, in which the bassoon is only accompanied by the basso continuo.

Sergio Azzolini is one of today's most prominent and brilliant players of the baroque bassoon. He has unearthed and recorded various unknown pieces, both solo concertos and sonatas, by Italian and German composers. In the ensemble L'Aura Soave Cremona he has found congenial partners who share his preference for extroverted and theatrical interpretations, in which the contrasts in Vivaldi's compositions are fully explored. Sometimes they move to the limits of good taste. In some cases I would have preferred a more subtle approach, like in the opening movement of the Concerto in a minor (RV 499). Azzolini here impresses by his sensible treatment of dynamics. I also would have preferred a smaller scoring: with three first and three second violins the ensemble produces a strong sound which I sometimes find a bit too noisy. But there can be no doubt that this recording is highly captivating: there is really no chance of falling asleep while these artists are playing.

Frans Robert Berkhout and the ensemble La Suave Melodia expand the horizon of Vivaldi's writing for the bassoon. In addition to the solo concertos there are various concertos for multiple instruments which include the bassoon, one double concerto as well as concerti da camera with a solo part for the bassoon.

The Concerto da camera in g minor (RV 106) is an example of a genre to which Vivaldi contributed some of his most brilliant and evocative works. In these pieces he combined the scoring of the sonata - three or four solo instruments and basso continuo - with the structure of the solo concerto, comprising three movements: fast - slow - fast. Several of these pieces were later reworked as solo concertos with ripieno strings. One of the most famous is the Concerto da camera in g minor (RV 104), with the nickname La Notte. On this disc we find Vivaldi's later reworking as the Concerto in B flat (RV 501). In this form it has lost nothing of its evocative character, and Frans Robert Berkhout and his colleagues deliver a highly compelling performance.

Vivaldi wrote just one double concerto with a bassoon part, the Concerto in G (RV 545). Originally the first solo part was intended for the recorder, but later Vivaldi decided to give it to the oboe. Here this part is performed at the transverse flute, because Pieter Dirksen believes Vivaldi may have had this instrument in mind. He refers to the fact that the range of this part never transcends the tessitura of the flute. The Concerto in g minor (RV 531) is also played here in a different scoring. Originally it is a double concerto for two cellos, but here the first part is scored for the bassoon, which required "a few minor changes". Whatever one may think about the reasoning of such adaptations, this was a widespread practice in the baroque era. Therefore there is no serious objection against this procedure as long as it is tasteful and according to the style of the period, and that is certainly the case here.

Whereas many of Vivaldi's concertos are highly theatrical, Vivaldi knew very well that the bassoon is able to produce lyricism as well. A most impressive example is the Concerto in a minor (RV 498), whose character is strongly influenced by the low pitch of the string ritornellos. The solo part in the first movement is dominated by descending figures. Berkhout and La Suave Melodia play this concerto with great sensitivity and subtlety. In the closing movement of the Concerto in c minor (RV 480) they show that they can let loose too.

The performances in these two recordings are quite different. Only one piece appears on both discs: the Concerto in g minor (RV 496). The interpretation of Sergio Azzolini and L'Aura Soave Cremona is more theatrical and extroverted, with greater dynamic contrasts, and a middle movement which is taken at a very slow speed. Frans Robert Berkhout and La Suave Melodia take a more restrained approach, which also works quite well. Here the rhythms of the fast movements are particularly well exposed, more so than in Azzolini's recording. The difference between the two recordings is also due to the smaller line-up of La Suave Melodia: just three violins versus the six of the Italian ensemble. In addition, the acoustic circumstances create a more intimate atmosphere.

Whatever the differences, I have enjoyed both recordings and would not to choose between them. Which of these two one prefers is probably largely a matter of taste. Na´ve's Vivaldi Edition is aiming at recording the complete oeuvre of Vivaldi, so we can be sure that more discs with bassoon concertos will appear. The Et'cetera disc is the second of Berkhout; the first was released in 2008. I don't know whether he also plans to record all of Vivaldi's works for bassoon. I certainly hope so, as I have enjoyed this disc, just as I did the first volume.

Every lover of Vivaldi's music and any bassoon aficionado will be very pleased with these two discs.

Johan van Veen (ę 2012)

Relevant links:

L'Aura Soave
La Suave Melodia

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