The Galant Bassoon

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International (UK)

I’ve been noticing these Melba label releases increasingly of late, and I must say their presentation is remarkably good. Housed in a sturdy gatefold, the well-documented booklets are not only firmly attached to the inside of the card, but properly stapled. You can read the booklet notes as a proper ‘book’, rather than having to open the thing gingerly, trying not to break some high-tech and probably short-lived glue spine. The design is also very clear and distinctive, although the 18th century lady does look somewhat stalked by the furtive looking bassoon man in the bushes on the illustration for this release. The folder comes housed in a sturdy clear plastic sleeve which is worth hanging onto, in case the boards start bending due to heat or moisture. Can’t you just tell I’m the son of a bookbinder?

The title The Galant Bassoon is not really inappropriate here, but might as easily have been The Baroque Bassoon. The ‘style galant’ is associated with the mid 18th century, but more usually accepted as referring to the generation which followed on from the ‘high baroque’—one son of J. S. Bach, J. C. Bach, being a prime example. Another, C. P. E. Bach, might be considered as falling partially outside this category due to the emotional intensity he frequently brought to his work. Either way, all but one of the pieces performed here have been transcribed for bassoon from original versions for other instruments, but they are all highly effective and deliver great enjoyment.

Beginning with Telemann’s Sonata in E Minor we are immediately bathed in the succulent sounds of deep double-bass, crisp harpsichord, and Matthew Wilkie’s superb bassoon playing. It’s like a wonderful expensive restaurant dish, full of different layers of flavour and textures to tease the palette. Throughout this disc Wilkie transcends all technical problems and delivers sheer musical joy and panache. His sound is round and mellifluous without being in any way sad and soggy, and he has plenty of ways of introducing variety even beyond the natural character of the various ranges of the instrument. His melodic phrasing is uncomplicated but effortlessly expressive, coloured with a satisfying and perfectly tasteful vibrato.

The instrument played is also thankfully non-clattery in terms of key noises, something which can be a turn-off with bassoons. This BWV 1030 sonata and the Sonata in A minor were originally written for viola da gamba, coming from Telemann’s own final published collection, the Essercizii musici of 1740. The range of the viola da gamba is comparable with that of the bassoon, and with just a few details of transcriptional licence for elements of the solo part which are idiomatic for strings but unplayable on a wind instrument, these pieces sound every bit as natural as the originals.

The J. S. Bach sonatas are both transcriptions from flute sonatas, the Sonata in E Minor BWV 1034 now appearing in the key of A minor, and the great Sonata in B Minor BWV 1030 transcribed for bassoon into A minor. As a flute player I know these pieces as well as I know my own toenails, and therefore how tough they both can be. BWV 1030 is highly technically demanding, and correctly played here without the addition of the double-bass. The conversation between bassoon and harpsichord and the change in tonality inevitably alters the character of the music, but is in my opinion none the worse for it. The flow of the first huge Andante movement is gorgeously elegant, and that beautiful Largo e dolce is taken with great expressive depth. The only marginal point is that the bassoon’s dynamic range doesn’t really go truly soft, and where a flute can’t go truly loud it does have the potential for a deal more dolce extremes than a double-reed instrument. This takes little away from the excellent playing here, and with the rousing rows of semi-quavers of the Presto to finish things off there can be no complaints.

The Sonata BWV 1030 opens with a delicious Adagio ma non tanto in which there is melodic interest for the double-bass continuo as well as plenty of opportunity for marvellous legato in the bassoon. The tricky Allegro is full of technical fireworks, and given plenty of drive by all players it sometimes seems as if Matthew Wilkie has an external pneumatic pump instead of lungs. With a muted stop on the harpsichord and pizzicato bass, the third Andante movement acquires an almost Jacques Loussier swing, and for those of us who are of a ‘certain generation’, it’s Hamlet cigars at the ready. No compromise in tempo for the final Allegro, which becomes a wild ride one wouldn’t have expected to be possible on a bassoon.

As the only piece here written specifically for bassoon, Telemann’s Sonata in F minor deserves special mention. This comes from the collection Der getreue Musik-Meister, and exists in a version for recorder. Like many of these pedagogical compositions, it could be played on almost any melody instrument, but the dramatic opening Triste and generally reflective feel of the minor key does seem ideal for the melancholy resonance of the bassoon. This is particularly true of the lovely Andante, although the Allegro and closing Vivace do have plenty of lively energy.

In quite a brave move, the program closes with a solo work, C. P. E. Bach’s Sonata for solo flute in A minor, here transcribed into D minor. Once again, this is a piece I must have played hundreds of times, but there is no sense of discomfort in hearing it through Wilkie’s wooden tones. In fact, I’m quite jealous. There is a good deal of counterpoint in the writing for this piece, and one of the challenges for a flute player is to give a separate identity and character to the different lines. The bassoon, with its greater resonance and clear definition of timbre in the lower registers, does this with far greater power and differentiation than most flute performances I’ve heard. Wilkie is light and playful in the middle Allegro, always giving the notes plenty of space. While he never allows the sometimes busy textures to crowd his instrument, his sense of the pulse in the music is unerring. The only moment that he stretches a bit beyond my taste is the upward arpeggio opening theme to the final Allegro. The harmony is well enough established by that triad, and the ‘ground tone’ needs no extra rubato emphasis in my humble opinion.

To conclude, this is a real winner. The chapel acoustic is quite resonant, but the engineers have managed to keep this part of the background rather than allowing it to swamp the instruments. The effect of transposing these works so that a double-bass works as a continuo works extremely well, and both the bass and the harpsichord are well balanced and support and interact with the bassoon in an ideal fashion. The surround SACD effect is the icing on an already quite rich musical cake, creating a luxurious aural space around the musicians which is quite intoxicating. People who ignore this disc merely because it’s played on bassoon are missing one of the best chamber music discs I’ve heard in a long time.