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Concerto for bassoon and small orchestra

1985; commissioned by Robert Thompson; dedicated to the memory of Jerzy Popiełuszko

1985: mobile phones were introduced, and Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in the Soviet Union. The music world lost composers Roger Sessions and William Alwyn, as well as the pianist Emil Gilels, but gained An Orkney wedding, with sunrise from Peter Maxwell Davies, as well as Live Aid with Bob Geldof. In Eastern Europe, there were serious rumblings from the Polish Solidarność (‘Solidarity’) movement led by Lech Wałęsa, who had received the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1983. The Polish authorities were clearly unimpressed by this, and a year later—in October 1984—a popular pro-Solidarity priest, Jerzy Popiełuszko, was tortured and murdered by three agents of the Służba Bezpieczeństwa (Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs). At this time, composer Andrzej Panufnik was composing a concerto which had been commissioned by the American bassoonist Robert Thompson. In the composer’s own words: ‘I was deeply shaken and immediately decided to dedicate my concerto to the memory of this Polish martyr of faith and fatherland.’ Thompson gave the concerto’s premiere performance in Milwaukee in 1986, and recorded it the following year for the BBC with the composer conducting. Thompson also travelled to Poland in the same year, to give a performance at Jerzy Popiełuszko’s church in Warsaw. The Polish authorities positioned an army tank by the main entrance of the church for the duration of the concert, but there was no incident, and the performance received an enthusiastic and emotional response.

The concerto is scored for a small orchestra of one flute, two clarinets and strings. Panufnik describes it as ‘an abstract work with no literary programme’, but he then goes on to describe the music: ‘Perhaps in Recitativo I (bassoon and three woodwind instruments) the listener might hear [the priest’s] humble prayer to the Virgin Mary. Possibly Recitativo II, where the bassoon is supported by the interjected chords of the string instruments, is related to the priest’s fatal encounter with the secret police—the very last interrogation before his tortured body was thrown into the Vistula river.’ The aria that follows is the longest movement in the concerto, and Panufnik describes it as ‘a kind of elegy, for which I composed a long melodic line in the spirit and character of Polish folk song, maybe invoking Father Popiełuszko’s peasant origins’. The work is continuous. It is truly an astonishing addition to the solo repertoire for bassoon, a unique composition that places considerable demands on the soloist, and quite possibly the most powerful example in music of the bassoon’s incredible range and intensity of expression.

from notes by Laurence Perkins © 2021


Voyage of a sea-god
Studio Master: CDA68371/22CDsStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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