VIVALDI: Bassoon Concertos, Vol. 2 (Bela Drahos/ Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia/ Tamas Benkocs) (Naxos: 8.555938)
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Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Complete Bassoon Concertos Volume 2: RV 467, 475, 486, 488, 501, 504
Known in his native Venice as the red priest, from theinherited colour of his hair, Antonio Vivaldi was born in1678, the son of a barber who later served as a violinistat the great Basilica of St Mark. Vivaldi studied for thepriesthood and was ordained in 1703. At the same timehe won a reputation for himself as a violinist ofphenomenal ability and was appointed violin-master atthe Ospedale della Piet?á. This last was one of four suchcharitable institutions, established for the education oforphan, indigent or illegitimate girls and boasting aparticularly fine musical tradition. Here the girls weretrained in music, some of the more talented continuingto serve there as assistant teachers, earning the dowrynecessary for marriage. Vivaldi's association with thePiet?á continued intermittently throughout his life, from1723 under a contract that provided for the compositionof two new concertos every month. At the same time heenjoyed a connection with the theatre, as the composerof some fifty operas, director and manager. He finallyleft Venice in 1741, travelling to Vienna, where thereseemed some possibility of furthering his career underimperial patronage, or perhaps with the idea oftravelling on to the court at Dresden, where his pupilPisendel was working. He died in Vienna a few weeksafter his arrival in the city, in relative poverty. At onetime he had been worth 50,000 ducats a year, it seemed,but now had little to show for it, as he arranged for thesale of some of the music he had brought with him.
Visitors to Venice had borne witness to Vivaldi'sprowess as a violinist, although some found hisperformance more remarkable than pleasurable. Hecertainly explored the full possibilities of theinstrument, while perfecting the newly developing formof the Italian solo concerto. He left nearly five hundredconcertos. Many of these were for the violin, but therewere others for a variety of solo instruments or forgroups of instruments. He claimed to be able tocomposer a new work quicker than a copyist could writeit out, and he clearly coupled immense facility with aremarkable capacity for variety within the confines ofthe three-movement form, with its faster outermovements framing a central slow movement.
The girls at the Piet?á had a wide variety ofinstruments available to them, in addition to the usualstrings and keyboard instruments of the basic orchestra.
These included the bassoon, for which Vivaldi wrote 39concertos, two of which are seemingly incomplete. Thereason for such a number of concertos for a relativelyunusual solo instrument is not known, and the fact thatone concerto is inscribed to Count Morzin, a patron ofVivaldi from Bohemia and a cousin of Haydn's earlypatron, and another to a musician in Venice, GioseppinoBiancardi, reveals little, although it has been suggestedthat Biancardi represented an earlier tradition ofbassoon playing, as a master of its predecessor, thedulcian. This is implied by the avoidance of the bottomnote of the later instrument, B flat. The bassoon was ingeneral an essential element in the characteristicGerman court orchestra of the eighteenth century,doubling the bass line and found in proportionatelygreater numbers than is now usual. The orchestralbassoon part was not written out, unless it differed, as itvery occasionally did, from the bass line played by thecello, double bass and continuo. The fact that bassoonsare specifically mentioned as being among those playedby the girls of the Piet?á seems to indicate that they wereused there for this purpose at least. There had been soloworks written for the instrument during the seventeenthcentury and technical changes led to a number of soloconcertos by the middle of the eighteenth century.
Nevertheless the quantity of bassoon concertos writtenby Vivaldi remains unusual.
Seven of Vivaldi's bassoon concertos are inF major. The Concerto in F major, RV 486, scored asalways for the solo instrument and string orchestra withcontinuo, begins with an orchestral ritornello before thefirst solo episode, and the alternation of orchestral andsolo passages, the latter calling for considerablevirtuosity. The slow movement is in the form of an ariafor the bassoon and continuo which explores the lyricalpotentiality of the solo instrument, principally in thetenor register. The principle of alternating orchestralritornello and solo passages is duly followed in the lastmovement, which bursts in with the expected energy.
The Concerto in C major, RV 475, one of fourteenin this key, starts with a unison passage, introducing thecustomary orchestral ritornello, its relative restraintsetting off the lively virtuosity of the solo entry of thesolo bassoon with its rapid characteristic figuration. Theslow movement opens with an orchestral introductionbefore the plaintively lyrical bassoon aria. The finalAllegro non molto begins with an orchestral ritornelloof lively delicacy, reflected by the soloist.
The Concerto in B flat major, 'La notte', RV 501, isone of the relatively few concertos by Vivaldi that, likeThe Four Seasons, has a programme, suggested in thegeneral title La notte (The night) and the movementtitles. The short first movement sets the scene, thebassoon entering with its ornamented recitative-likemelodic line. I fantasmi explores the dramaticpossibilities suggested by the title, as the bassoonevokes the varied fantasmata of the night, followed bythe relative tranquillity of Il sonno (Sleep), brought toan end only by Sorge l'aurora (Dawn breaks), theenergy of the bassoon contrasted with the variedreactions implied by the orchestra, as it awakes to a newday.
The Concerto in F major, RV 488, begins with awide-spaced figure, echoed by the bassoon in theopening of the first entry, and in what follows. Thecentral Largo has lyrical bassoon passages withcontinuo, linked by the orchestra. The dotted rhythms ofthe last movement ritornello, with its rapid repeatednotes, frame solo bassoon episodes of virtuoso display.
The Concerto in B flat major, RV 504, one of fourconcertos in this key, starts with an effective ritornello,the excited rapid scales of which are reflected in thebassoon solo that follows, with all its variety offiguration, a further example of the inventiveness of thecomposer, within a relatively restricting structure. Thesoloist offers a poignant aria in the slow movement,scored for bassoon and continuo. Rapid scale figurationis again a feature of the final Allegro.
Vivaldi's Concerto in C major, RV 467, has a firstmovement of cheerful energy, to which minor-keytouches add contrast in sequence after sequence, withevery variety of figuration. The minor-key slowmovement starts in a mood of melancholy, continued ina lyrical bassoon solo. The ritornello of the lastmovement provides the necessary element of contrast,before the demonstration of agility that marks the soloepisodes that return, before the effective conclusion to awork that offers yet further evidence of the composer'sfacility and infinite variety of invention.Keith Anderson