Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Five Concertos for Bassoon, Strings and Basso Continuo
Concerto in G minor, RV 496 [12:14]
Concerto in C major, RV 475 [11:59]
Concerto in A minor, RV 500 [12:07]
Concerto in F major, RV 486 [9:04]
Concerto in E minor, RV 484 [11:01]
Valery Popov (bassoon)
State Chamber Orchestra of Belorussian SSR/Valery Polyansky
rec. 6 March 1989, St. Sofia Cathedral, Polotsk, Belarus
MELODIYA MELCD1002098 [55:23]

The Red Priest - as Vivaldi was known because of his highly unusual hair colour for an Italian - wrote over three hundred concertos. After the violin, which was his own instrument, the bassoon is the most strongly represented. Vivaldi seems to have written nearly forty concertos for the instrument. The most likely reason for this remarkable number was that they were composed for female pupils at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice – essentially an orphanage - where he worked off and on for many years. If that’s the case, they must have been outstandingly talented students, because these concertos – given the relatively primitive state of the bassoon and other wind instruments in the early 18th century – are true virtuoso works. They’re full of rapid staccato passages, wide leaps, difficult running figuration, and, perhaps most notably, an understanding of the beauty of cantabile expression of which the bassoon is capable.
The concertos are all cast in the typical 18th century mould of quick-slow-quick, and use Vivaldi’s favourite ritornello principle, which essentially shifts the focus back and forth from soloist to orchestra. The slow middle movements are the most interesting for me, for this is where Vivaldi explores the soloist’s expressive possibilities mentioned above, and where his harmonies are often at their most daring.
For many years, it was difficult to find recordings of these works. They tended to be written off as ‘historical oddities’, and even bassoonists fought shy of them. The growing interest in Baroque and early music put an end to that blinkered attitude, and today there are numerous excellent recordings. This CD of five of the concertos dates back to 1989, and can thus be credited with playing a part in this revival. Valery Popov is an outstanding player, and clearly revels in the opportunities the music gives his superbly fluent technique.
His tone, though, has a certain thickness to it, something typical of what you could describe as the ‘Russian School’ of bassoon playing. It’s unsurpassed in the Romantic repertoire, and in the music of, for example, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. I for one find it a little heavy for the present repertoire, a characteristic which is emphasised by the rather rapid, throaty vibrato Popov employs. Again, great in Tchaikovsky, but not so effective here. His tone also alters quite significantly, sometimes from one movement to the next; that is strange, given that these concertos were, apparently, all recorded on one day. That sounds a bit cruel, and very hard on the bassoonists ‘lip’ – I wonder did he occasionally change to a softer reed, offering less resistance in the sustained slow movements? It’s possible – or it could be a slight shift in microphone positioning. Whatever the cause, it is noticeable. You can hear it in the transition from the first to the second movements of RV 484, tracks 13–14.
The strings and continuo of Belorussian Chamber Orchestra play beautifully. The accompaniments can become disastrously hum-drum if they are not given constant alertness and musicality. There is no danger of that, and the cathedral acoustic encourages some magically beautiful soft playing from them in the slow movements. However, in the faster sections, the acoustic is unhelpful, and quick moving bass lines, in particular, are often a boomy blur.
The balance between soloist and ripieno is fine, but does sound a little artificial. Popov is very close and in this regard, the Naxos recordings with Tamás Benkócs have found something more natural. Benkócs’ playing, too, is, in the end, far more stylish; he using vibrato sparingly, but has a gloriously clear tone, and his rapid staccato is simply stunning. His main competitor is the outstanding Klaus Thunemann, something of a legend in his own lifetime, whose performances with I Musici on Philips are impossible to surpass. All three of these outstanding players are preferable to the very disappointing ASV CDs by Daniel Smith – not in the same league.
This Popov CD, despite the reservations I’ve expressed, is thoroughly recommendable, and strongly in his favour I’d say he has chosen five of the most attractive of the concertos. Despite their apparent conventionality, these are quirky, witty pieces, with all kinds of delightful twists and turns. Take RV 500, which starts off in A minor, but forsakes that for an ending in C major. The final Allegro of the same concerto is hilarious in its way; the strings keep proposing a bit of counterpoint, maybe even a fugue? In fact, the bassoon is completely uninterested in such academic pursuits, and just enjoys burbling happily in the usual way – great fun.

Gwyn Parry-Jones
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