The Galant Bassoon

Steven Ritter
Fanfare (US)

There is only one work on this delicious program that was originally for bassoon, the Telemann Sonata in F Minor, taken from his collection The Faithful Music Master, a portfolio meant to inspire amateur music-making in the home. But listening to Telemann’s two other sonatas on this disc, both from his Essercizii musici of 1740 and written for viola da gamba, you are hard pressed to detect any noticeable deficiencies in technical acumen in the transcriptions. The bass range of the viola da gamba fits well with the bassoon’s natural sonic habitat, and its wistful mellowness is easily able to convey the emotive core of the music. As an aside, even though the viola da gamba was long abandoned, the composer kept writing for it in many of his scores.

The inclusion of a work by C. P. E. Bach is only just, since he was Telemann’s godson as well as his successor to the position of Kapellmeister of Hamburg. The piece in question is his famous Sonata in A Minor for Solo Flute. This was composed during his stint in the employ of King Frederick II, the ‘Great’, a flutist and composer, though apparently Bach wasn’t that happy with the king’s inability to perform the piece properly. For bassoon it seems to work well, though I think that of all the pieces on this disc it is the one most open to question in terms of sound—parts of it just don’t breathe in the same long-lined arch that the flute is able to provide. This is not the fault of the performer, or of the transcription (here taken down to D Minor), but instead of the lines themselves, perhaps for once actually composed with the technical abilities of the flute in mind. Nevertheless it is well played and affords pleasure, only with a degree of suspicion present.

The J.S. Bach pieces are so well known and have been regurgitated by so many instruments that they are almost immune to transcription criticism. The BWV 1034 sonata was definitely composed for the flute in Leipzig, and its move to A Minor doesn’t seem to inhibit it at all. BWV 1030, the famous one in B Minor (taken here in E Minor), features the longest first movement Bach ever wrote (coming in at around eight minutes) and is also only one of two that have a written-out continuo part. Before listening I was a little concerned that the use of a double bass for continuo instead of a cello might clutter the lines of this sonata in particular, but that did not prove the case.

Part of the answer probably lies in the fact that Melba is so good at recording in Super Audio. The company is able to capture the instruments in their pristine sonic splendor and allow the interaction to blend without confusing the counterpoint or blurring the specific tonal properties. Matthew Wilkie is currently the principal bassoonist with the Sydney Symphony (since 2000) after an earlier stint with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and its branch-off wind soloists, and plays with a gorgeously unaffected tone. Not since the last releases of Canadian bassoonist Nadina Mackie Jackson have I been so enthusiastic about a bassoon recital. Wilkie’s cohorts, Neal Peres Da Costa and Kees Boersma , play with equally committed gusto and panache in this wonderful Australian production. There are no indications as to those responsible for the transcriptions. No worries here, mate—go for it!