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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Bassoon Concertos - Volume 1: Concertos in: C major RV 476; F major RV487; C major RV 471; A minor RV 498; C minor RV480; B flat major RV 503; G major RV 493
Tamas Benkocs (bassoon)
Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia/Bela Drahos
Recorded at the Phoenix Studios, Budapest March 2002
NAXOS 8.555937 [61.32]


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Naxos's 'Vivaldi Collection' flourishes. How many volumes will it take up in the end? Now they tackle the bassoon concertos. There are thirty-seven of them in all so with seven on this disc at least five discs will be needed. It's not so much the cost but the shelf space that may be the problem!

Each of these concertos is, as you might expect, in three movements, lasting between seven and a half and nine and a half minutes. It has been said that once you have heard one Vivaldi concerto you have heard all 550. I suppose that there used to be an element of truth in this but recently we have been treated to such superb performances by, for example 'Arte dei Suonatori' Baroque Orchestra under Rachel Podger (the 'La Stravaganza' Violin concertos on Channel Classics) and just recently by 'Concerto Italiano' under Rinaldo Alessandrini (on Opus 111) that the old cliché begins to ring false. The 'Red Priest' is indeed a fascinatingly fecund composer whose music can be wildly energetic or beautifully delicate and poignant. Even so there were times on this CD when yet another set of falling sequences and repeated rhythms made me ponder what to have for lunch, or whether it would be more profitable to hoover the car. Try the first movement of the A minor concerto. When the attention wanders you are sometimes rescued by a beguiling melody or by a telling suspension as in the middle movement of the G major concerto.

Even Keith Anderson, Naxos's regular and prolific annotator, who is always informative and very helpful, seems to be struggling to find useful things to say. He is reduced to phrases like "the solo passages are marked by characteristic figuration, and a use of the full range of the solo instrument". Later the entry of the bassoon is "marked by wide leaps and contrasts of register".

But then the two above-mentioned recordings of Vivaldi are some of the most vital and exciting performances of his music ever committed to disc. The Esterhazy Sinfonia can in no way compete with them. But I'm not being fair; I 'm not comparing like with like. These, for one thing, are not playing on original instruments. The Esterhazy orchestra is also more conventional, with a conductor at the head instead of simply being led from the violin, like Rachel Podger or from the harpsichord like Christopher Hogwood.

Also, I'm not that enamoured of the idea of positioning all of the violins on the left-hand speaker, the soloist in the middle of the stereo picture and the continuo to the right. Presumably this was the idea of the conductor Bela Drahos although engineer Janos Bohus must surely bear part of the blame. The layout might sound OK at first reading but the many antiphonal passages written into the music are lost, or not made as much of as they should have been. Examples of missed opportunities are the finale of the F major concerto and in the slow movement of the A minor concerto.

The orchestral playing is crisp and the dynamics are nicely graded which is important in this music. It is rather a pity that it often seems that the orchestral work has been pushed a little to the back of the stereo picture making the bassoon slightly over-prominent. The slow movements come off particularly well with some beautifully poised string tone.

I can only admire and praise however Tamas Benkocs whose virtuosity, lyrical tone across the all registers and dexterity of finger-work is utterly superb. He lifts the music and the recording out of the ordinary into something approaching the sublime.

The C minor concerto is a real showcase. It begins with a strong unison ritornello passage for the strings. Then the bassoon comes on and the movement takes off. It is lithe, acrobatic and elegant. The upper register is expressive. I can't help but wonder what kind of player at the 'Ospidale de la Pieta' did Vivaldi have in mind for this music. One of the pupils? One concerto is dedicated to Giuseppe Biancardi who apparently played the dulcian, an early kind of bassoon. Incidentally the slow movement for this concerto is an editorial addition but, as is quite typical at present, the editor is sadly anonymous.

So to sum up. There is much enjoyable music here. I suspect that you probably need to be keen on the bassoon or on unusual Vivaldi to really appreciate it. However at Naxos's budget price there is not much lost if you only play it once.

Gary Higginson

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