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The Proud Bassoon

Virtuoso works for baroque bassoon and continuo
Peter Whelan (bassoon), Ensemble Marsyas Detailed performer information
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Recording details: September 2012
Wigmore Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: February 2014
Total duration: 59 minutes 47 seconds

Cover artwork: Felix Reiner mit Fagott by Peter Jakob Horemans (1700-1776)

This unique album is a collection of the very best of the virtuoso solo music composed for the galant French styled baroque bassoon. Included are a wide range of works composed for the court, the Opèra, for the home and from the street, brought back to life by Peter and special guests Ensemble Marsyas.

The basson, or bassoon, inspired many now forgotten high-level artworks by the greatest French composers. As the leaders in musical fashion, they in turn influenced their German contemporaries who were inspired by the elegance and lyrical possibilities of the new French instrument, especially in the expressive tenor register.

This recording includes a world-premiere of the Irish Air, Eileen Aroon, arranged for bassoon and continuo by Handel's first violinist in Dublin, Matthew Dubourg. This beautiful melody subsequently became very popular in Europe and inspired compositions by both Haydn and Beethoven.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'For his latest release, Whelan has deployed Ensemble Marysas to explore some of the colourful ways in which his instrument was deployed in the Baroque courts, street and opera house. There's pungent Rameau, the famous Telemann Bassoon Sonata, which Whelan observes isn't uniquely tailored to the bassoon … what a satisfying, pungent sound … relishing the unique turn qualities of the instrument, played by Peter Whelan with members of his ensemble Ensemble Marsyas. Characterful players all of them, and it's a thoroughly enjoyable outing for the gruff Baroque double reed instrument. Music from Rameau, Telemann and Fasch and Boismortier. The Proud Bassoon is what they've called it; it sounds that way' (BBC Radio 3 CD Review)

'Peter Whelan's playing is always a delight to hear—full of life, interest and variety, and clearly demonstrates why the bassoon has every right to be proud!' (Early Music Review)» More

'It was Johann Mattheson who referred to 'the proud bassoon' as long ago as 1713. The baroque bassoon is a kind of dancing bear, one gifted with the stamina and skill to achieve Riverdance-like energy levels, but also with a penchant for melancholy and mournfulness. Peter Whelan offers bassoon sonatas by Fasch and Telemann, which are among the first of their kind; two 1734 sonatas by Boismortier (who, five years earlier, wrote the first bassoon concerto); and duos with cello from Couperin's Les goûts-réunis. The CD is topped and tailed by a delightful Rameau arrangement and a set of variations on Eileen Aroon by Dublin-based Matthew Dubourg. The instrument may sing with hoarse tone and strain, but this seems hardly a sacrifice when so much here is a real musical joyride' (The Irish Times)

'Dieses Album macht es dem Rezensenten nicht Ieicht. Es enthält so überwältigend schöne Musik, dass man gar nicht anders kann, als sich auf den ersten Blick zu verlieben. Man möchte am liebsten gar nicht kritisieren … auf dieser SACD stehen eher profane (aber eben sehr nett anzuhörende) Gelegenheitskompositionen neben großer Kunst aus der Feder Couperins, Faschs oder Telemanns. Solist Peter Whelan ist ein Phänomen auf dem Barockfagott. Wie viel Farbe und Lyrismus er aus diesem schwierig beherrschbaren Instrument herausholt, nötigt einem tiefen Respekt ab' (Crescendo, Germany)

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What does the bassoon have to be proud of? After all, isn’t it the clown of the orchestra? It is too easy for caricatures like the goofy lumbering theme in Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the grandfather in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf to override the more serious aspects of the bassoon’s musical persona. These images colour our perception of the eighteenth-century bassoon, which had every right to claim the epithet ‘proud’.

The variety of bassoon precursors that existed at the end of the Renaissance elicited a lexicon of names: curtal, dulcian, bajón, basson, fagott. The last may refer to the instrument’s physical construction that made it look like a bundle of sticks, an etymology that appeared as early as 1636 before the appearance of earliest reported true bassoon made in four pieces where the image makes more sense. That instrument arrived on the scene in France sometime in the 1670s, likely a product of the famous Hotteterre dynasty of woodwind players and builders that was also responsible for creating the Baroque oboe from its ancestor the shawm shortly before. The instrument they designed had a strong resonant low register, making it ideal to reinforce the bass line, but the tenor and upper registers remained the terrain of the virtuoso for some time. Still, this made it ideally suited to providing bass lines, and its doubled-back bore meant that it was more compact and portable than the hefty bass shawm pommers. At first the bassoon marched alongside oboes in bands to rouse troops to battle, served as the king’s official alarm clock at his levée, or in rustic contexts, it often imitated the bagpipe bourdon.

The Dulcian had a rich solo repertoire but even after the Baroque bassoon arrived in its definitive form, it still took some time to assert its pride of place in musical ensembles. More than anything, it had to challenge the long-standing assessment of wind instruments as less noble than strings, and inferior in their expressive capabilities. Like the mythical Marsyas who had the temerity to challenge Apollo to a competition between his rustic aulos pipes and the refined lyre, bassoonists were not always given the same opportunities as other instrumentalists and had to struggle to assert their individual voice but emerged if not the victors, the proud equals to their competitors.

Like the other woodwinds developed at the court of Louis XIV just prior to the establishment of Lully’s Académie Royale de Musique (known commonly as the Opéra), the bassoon was also developed to be part of the orquestre. That meant that it not only played in double reed consorts, but needed to be able to play in tune with and blend with other instruments. Gradually its unique tonal characteristics were used to add colour to the other sections of the orchestra. Bassoonists found work outside France in the company of Hautboisten bands, one of the most important cultural status symbols of the time. Already in the 1670s and 1680s oboe bands were resident in Württemburg and Hamburg. Early on, the talents of the better bassoonists were utilised in aria obbligatos for one or two bassoons, some of the instrument’s earliest solo repertoire.

As players and makers began to further explore the instrument’s potential, its range was extended upwards. It was the Hamburg composer and music commentator Johann Mattheson who dubbed the bassoon ‘proud,’ and wrote 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.’ This implies that fluency in the upper register continued to be a challenge, but if the new bassoon music is anything to go by, it was a challenge soon met by the finest of players. With this new capability, resulting partly from design modifications, and partly from adjustments to reed making, the bassoon was called on to supply inner harmonies and counter melodies and, in the hands of an astute master, was now able to match the haute-contre — the proud high tenor hero of French opera.

As today, the bassoon was not nearly as common as other instruments, like the flute, violin or oboe, or for that matter its string counterpart the cello. It is hard to deny that, when it comes to repertoire, the bassoon has always been less well off than practically any other instrument. This is partly because it took some time for its personality to take shape from its disparate registral components: the strong, manly, sometimes gruff lowest register, the rich middle, and strained but potentially lyrical upper reaches.

If the bassoon’s multifarious character were not enough, the lexicon of names applied to it made for an identity crisis. Today fagott and basson are used to distinguish the two main branches of modern instruments. The German fagot and French basson developed in parallel over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, each with distinctive physical forms as well as associated playing techniques, reeds and approaches. But the terms existed before there was a clear national distinction. Bach used both words in different contexts. Most of the bassoon parts written in Weimar are labelled ‘bassono’ and are notated higher than the other instruments. In his later music he more frequently used the designation ‘fagotto’ notating the part at the same pitch as the other orchestral instruments. This suggests that for Bach bassono could have been a lower-pitched (probably French) instrument and the fagotto was a dulcian at Chorton. But in terms of treatment, there is little to distinguish in the energetic agile filigree that he gave both fagotto and bassono. Other composers used the same terms, but were apparently less discriminating. The manuscript of the sonata by Fasch on this recording, likely composed when Bach was already established in Leipzig, gives ‘fagotto solo’ and ‘bason’ for the accompanying bass line — an indication of different instruments, or simply the recognition of separate functions?

The 1710s and 1720s saw a flowering in the art of bassoon playing. In Dresden musical tastes were turning to Vivaldi for inspiration. His plethora of bassoon concertos and chamber works with bassoon set the tone for Jan Dismas Zelenka’s astounding Trio Sonatas where the bassoonist takes on an increasingly independent role. While in the first couple of sonatas it still supplies the bass to the virtuosic oboe parts, across the set of six sonatas, Zelenka gave the bassoon progressively more elaborated parts that vie with the oboes for the virtuosic limelight. Johann Friedrich Fasch, who was appointed Kapellmeister in Zerbst in 1722, visited Dresden five years later and wrote sacred and instrumental music for the famous Hofkapelle orchestra, so he was doubtless familiar with Zelenka’s music and the bassoon playing there. Fasch’s chamber music also includes numerous works with demanding bassoon parts, but his only bassoon sonata dates from the end of the 1720s and may compete with Telemann’s Sonata in F minor, Twv 41:f1 as being the earliest sonata specifying bassoon as the solo instrument, although Telemann’s is certainly the first to appear in print.

Telemann published his Sonata in instalments in his weekly music periodical Der Getreue Musikmeister (The Faithful Music Master), begging patience from subscribers to wait for four issues to build up the entire work (even the two parts of the second movement were printed in successive issues). Most of the music in this periodical seems to have been intended for domestic music making by amateurs, and we may well ask how many subscribers there would have been with the requisite skills for this work. Telemann’s innate idiomatic instrumental writing comes through. The melancholic triste with intertwined chromatic lines where the bassoon sometimes drops below the bass is eminently playable on the bassoon, as are the more vigorous passages in later movements. But, at the same time there is nothing that stamps Telemann’s writing as uniquely tailored to the bassoon. The range ascends to high G, but it only rarely takes advantage of the bassoon’s character as bass and melodic instrument. This music is easily transferrable to other instruments. Indeed Telemann added a note at the very end of the sonata so that it can also be played on recorder. Still, the work placed the bassoon on an equal footing with other instruments and bassoonists could proudly claim this sonata that was every bit as good as the best of Telemann’s sonatas for any other instruments. It is hard to know if we are to make anything of Telemann’s use of the designation ‘fagotto’ in place of ‘basson’. Was he writing for a German instrument rather than the newer French basson that would shortly after burst forth with its fully-developed tenor and high registers?

Fasch’s Sonata in C Major for bassoon and continuo, Fwv N:C 1, while in terms of range no wider than Telemann’s, takes fuller advantage of the bassoon’s different registers. Note the wide leaps in the fast movements. Fasch’s style is already a hybrid of high Baroque formal design spiced with perky triplet decoration, flashes of showy virtuosity and cheeky chromatic surprises — hallmarks of the galant style that became established as the new musical fashion in the 1730s. Recently arrived in France from Italy, the galant style idiom placed greater emphasis on lightness and simplicity, and gained popularity through the Concert Spirituel, where instrumentalists, rather than resting in the shadows of subservience in vocal works, could shine in bravura showpieces. The bassoon came into its own, and was featured more as a soloist in concertos and chamber music. Boismortier composed the earliest known concerto (Op 26, 1729), and the two sonatas from his Op 50 (1734) are prime examples of this style. They take full advantage of the bassoon’s extended range, leaps between its sonorous low register and radiant upper reaches becoming a distinctive feature of the writing.

Couperin’s Les goûts-réunis, ou Nouveaux concerts. Treizième Concert represents a slightly older style of music. Written for ‘deux instruments à l’unisson’ implying two instruments share the same range but not necessarily the same timbre, the top part is slightly higher in range than the other, but instead of the second part being conceived as a basse continue, it is an equal partner. The contrapuntal interplay is more apparent when the bassoon is contrasted by a string instrument as here. As Ordinaire de la Musique de la Chambre du Roy, Couperin was responsible for providing music for Sunday afternoon performances in the king’s chambers. Although published almost ten years after the death of Louis XIV, this concert may thus preserve music written and performed some years prior. And in its understated charm, there is a hint of the grandeur of majestic ceremony, its dance movements preserving the essence of the dignity of the court of the Sun King. From the list of the names of his accompanying musicians in Couperin’s earlier set of chamber music, Les Concerts Royaux to which the Les goûts-réunis provides a sequel, it would appear that the Treizième Concert was written for gambist Hilaire Verloge (called Alarius) and bassoonist François Dubois.

The best French players were employed at the Opéra, and with a section of four players at their disposal, composers could draw out the talents of certain players who specialised in the new high-register writing. From his first opera Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), Rameau wrote prominent parts for bassoons that regularly rise to high A, and occasionally B-flat. These are moments of true bassoon pride where bassoon tone penetrates the orchestral palette, both giving it the richness of harmony for which Rameau had made himself famous through his treatises, and lending the score heart-searing pathos. Still, Rameau did not use the bassoon to symbolise heroism or pride per se. Quite to the contrary, he used it to cast a sombre, dolorous veil over the music. The lugubrious tone of a funereal scene, the dark solitude of a prison cell, the mysteries of sorcery are all coloured with the plaintive, somewhat strained tone of bassoons in its upper register. There are other instances where the bassoons lend their voice in more animated writing, and Rameau called on the bassoon’s agility to give sprightly gesture to lively dances, but here the bassoon rarely takes the lead, answering rather to the call of the strings and upper winds. So, more than anything, the bassoon came to be associated with the inner recesses of human nature rather than proud exaltation or jubilation, and that is perhaps why Michel Corette named his 1739 set of bassoon pieces Les Délices de la Solitude (The Delights of Solitude); eager that his publication reach a wider public, he listed bassoon only after cello and viol.

If the bassoon had a fairly prescribed ambitus of roles in the opera house, in the private salon and chamber music settings it routinely filled a more varied assortment of roles. An abundance of anthologies of popular operatic tunes were compiled for the varied needs of private music making. Tracks 1–3 are taken from one such source entitled Les Gentils Airs, ou Airs connus, ajustée en duo, pour basson seul accompagné d’un clavecin, assembled by the Leclerc brothers who, as well as running a music publishing business, played violin in the Opéra orchestra and so were familiar with the operatic repertoire, and the capabilities of their orchestral colleagues. When the anthology was compiled in the middle of the eighteenth century the bassoon section at the Opéra included Chedeville, closely related to the Hotteterres, Brunelle, Nicholas de Labarre and Antoine Dard, who had published a set of six highly virtuosic Sonatas in 1759. Dard’s title — Six Sonates pour le bassoon ou violoncel avec basse continue — gave pride of place to the bassoon and effectively turned the tables on its secondary role to its prime competitor, the cello.

The contents of Les Gentils Airs indicates that it had become quite appropriate for the bassoon to take on a broader range of characters, including the rollicking ‘Les sauvages.’ Said to have been inspired by a troupe of Amerindians brought to Paris, the piece started life as a solo harpsichord work (published 1726) before becoming more widely known in an operatic version in the final entrée of Rameau’s hugely successful Indes galantes (1735 with ‘Les sauvages’ added 1736). It is hard to say what — if anything — is inherently ‘savage’ (that is, primitive) about this music. In the opera it is scored for violins and oboes on the top line, alternating with a soprano and bass duo and chorus with the text ‘Forêts paisibles’ (Peaceful Forests). In Leclerc’s scaled-down version for two bass instruments, the piece takes on a jovial, satiric tone. The other two selections from Les Gentils Airs are the equally famous ‘Tambourin’ from Rameau’s Keyboard Suite in E minor (1724, also recycled in a later opera) and ‘La Furstemberg’ taken from a keyboard work by Michel Corrette. It is unclear whether this is an original composition by Corrette or an arrangement of a folk melody, but whatever the case, it is full of rustic charm. There is precedence for playing it alongside Rameau’s ‘Tambourin’ as Corrette himself placed them together in one of his Concertos Comiques, a set of pastiche works that featured famous tunes from the theatres and streets of Paris. There is a further, historical and wholly serendipitous connection between ‘La Furstemberg’ and the bassoon. The manuscript of the Fasch bassoon sonata bears the notation ‘Ex. Lib Comitum de Fürstenberg–Herdringen’ indicating that it was part of the library of Baron Clemens Lothar von Fürstenberg, which also houses the most significant collection of music for a regimental oboe band to have survived from the eighteenth century.

The Irish Air, Eileen Aroon, arranged for bassoon and continuo by Handel’s first violinist in Dublin, Matthew Dubourg is a precious link to an original performance. The Dublin Journal mentioned that on 5 March 1745 ‘Mr. Alcock will play Eileen O’Roon … with some new Graces set on purpose for the Basson [sic] by Mr Dubourg and a Concerto by Mr Boyce.’ Alcock (or Allcock) is recorded as playing bassoon in Dublin on three occasions in 1744–46. This may have been the same John Alcock who published A Favourite Duett for two bassoons or cellos and other music based on Christmas noels and hymns. Unfortunately, the bassoon version of Eileen O’Roon does not appear to have survived, but it is likely that it would have been very similar to Dubourg’s arrangement for harpsichord, which is also one of the earliest arrangements of the tune. Peter Whelan found the harpsichord version in the National Library of Ireland and discovered that with only light revisions he could easily adapt it ‘on purpose’ for the bassoon. The tune Eileen Aroon (variant spellings are efforts to Anglicise the Gaelic original) is also known as Robin Adair, and gained great popularity, its charm attracting many composers including Beethoven and Haydn.

Geoffrey Burgess © 2014

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