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The Art of the Bassoon
Robert Thompson (bassoon)
rec. 1980-2002
HERITAGE HTGCD402 [4 CDs: 216:09]

I gave a warm welcome to Robert Thompson’s previous release on the Heritage label which was a rather special recording of the Panufnik bassoon concerto (HTGCD266). The bassoon is something of a threatened species in the world of music and it’s good to welcome this CD set into the catalogue. None of the recordings are of recent vintage but the majority are of very good quality. The music shows that the bassoon can tackle music from across the ages with works ranging from Vivaldi in the early 18th century right through to Downey’s quintet from 2002.

Let’s now get the bad news out of the way first. The recording of the Mozart concerto is dreadful in terms of sound quality. It brings to mind a scruffy Vox production from the early 1960s or a low quality MP3 recorded by a member of the audience. The orchestral playing is wooden and the soloist has a really off day with uneven runs, fluffs and inaccuracies throughout. The wobbly bassoon tone is too comical for words. It should never have seen the light of day to be blunt. Heritage could have sacrificed this concerto and opted for a more economical 3 CD set.

Thompson’s Vivaldi concertos disc is a Chandos production from 1980 and the bright recording of the London Mozart Players with Philip Ledger on harpsichord is splendid. The bassoon image is rather woolly, unless this is a true representation of the soloist’s tone. It’s certainly a huge improvement on the Mozart. I’m no lover of Vivaldi’s concertos. There is a sameness about them that is tiring. This is a good collection but it’s a CD I could only dip in and out of for one concerto at a time. That’s a reflection on the music and not of the performers.

Franz Danzi was a talented composer whose music is typical of the classical era. The three delightful quartets are full of attractive thematic ideas. The string writing is especially lively and the leading role is given to the bassoon. Mr Thompson plays the solos with plenty of gusto and a secure technique. His tone, as in the Vivaldi, is soft and maybe a little lacking in projection. Each of the quartets follows a similar format: an opening movement in sonata form, a slow movement, a minuet and a final rondo. That doesn’t mean that the works all sound the same. The ideas are always fresh. This isn’t great art but Danzi shouldn’t be dismissed. This is still music of great charm and quality.

Gordon Jacob is shockingly neglected and his works are barely represented in the catalogue. His neo-classical bassoon concerto, written in 1947, was dedicated to the great Archie Camden. Jacob was a true craftsman and this concerto is a fine example of his work. The scampering opening movement gives the soloist plenty of scope for virtuoso display and Mr Thompson rises to the challenge. The playing is technically secure and his legato playing in the central slow movement, set in a high register, is especially noteworthy. The jaunty finale brings the work to a sunny conclusion, with more virtuosity displayed by the soloist.

John Downey’s The Edge of Space is magnificently performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. This is modern, tonal orchestral music. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way but much of it does sound like film music and there is a rambling informal feeling as it wends its way through its 19 minute time span. At least it keeps moving forward and new ideas, some of them quite memorable, crop up on a regular basis. The bassoon adds its own musical line as events unfold rather than taking a leading concerto role. This is a strange mix reminiscent of scores used in science fiction and horror films interspersed with some unusual ideas such as the use at one point of eight tuned crystal glasses (rather nice, actually) and a jazzy interlude for bassoon, vibraphones and double bass. It’s often quite peculiar but rather fascinating. The composer’s Bassoon Quintet is less appealing. Despite some interesting passages the work is not especially memorable. The string playing here is forward and aggressive and doesn’t give the listener enough breathing space to enjoy the music.

Juriaan Andriessen’s Concertino is a splendid 10 minutes of light-hearted enjoyment. The solo bassoon is joined by a double woodwind quartet and in the magical opening Adagio the three bassoons join forces in a mystical trio. The solo bassoon gradually breaks free and starts to dominate the proceedings. The music is in turns lyrical and fast moving. This is a very satisfying piece and it ends with a thickly scored climax that finishes the work off with a bravura flourish.

Finally we have the Threnody and Scherzo by Arnold Bax, written in 1936. This is another work dedicated to Archie Camden. It isn’t one of Bax’s strongest works but it’s still worth its place in this collection. The opening threnody is a haunting elegy against which the bassoon weaves a mournful lament. The bouncy scherzo has a distinctly Celtic atmosphere and this comes to its full fruition in the central section where the harp becomes an equal partner to the bassoon. This elegiac duet then gives way to a reprise of the scherzo. It’s hard to make huge claims for the piece but it is a welcome addition to the bassoonist’s repertoire.

This is a thoughtful and well-produced set of CDs that showcases Robert Thompson in a wide range of musical styles. The sound is consistently good and the majority of the performances are well presented. I’m still not sure what possessed the soloist and the record label to allow the frightful version of the Mozart concerto to slip through the net. It spoils what is otherwise a creditable achievement.

John Whitmore

Previous review: Gwyn Parry-Jones

Contents
CD 1 [44:26]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Concerto in Bb major, RV504 [12:24]
Concerto in A minor , RV498 [11:17]
Concerto in C major, RV472 [10:31]
Concerto in C minor, RV480 [9:45]
Robert Thompson (bassoon)
London Mozart Players/Philip Ledger
rec. All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London, England, May 1980

CD 2 [68:08]
Franz DANZI (1763-1826)
Three Quartets for Bassoon and Strings, op.40
No. 1 in C major [23:38]
No.2 in D minor [24:08]
No.3 in Bb major [18:45]
Robert Thompson (bassoon)
Members of the Coull Quartet
rec. St. Mary’s Church, Adderbury, Oxfordshire, July 1995

CD 3 [46:04]
Gordon JACOB (1895-1984)
Concerto for Bassoon and Strings (with optional percussion) [15:09]
John DOWNEY (1927-2004)
The Edge of Space: Fantasy for Bassoon and Orchestra [19:36]
Robert Thompson (bassoon), London Symphony Orchestra/Geoffrey Simon
Juriaan ANDRIESSEN (1925-1996)
Concertino for Bassoon and Wind Ensemble [10:47]
Robert Thompson (bassoon)
Wind Players of the English Chamber Orchestra/Geoffrey Simon
rec. All Saints’ Church Tooting, London, England, December 1980

CD 4 [57:31]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Threnody and Scherzo for bassoon, harp and strings [12:22]
Robert Thompson (bassoon), Karen Vaughan (harp)
London Symphony Orchestra/David Amos
John DOWNEY
Quintet for Bassoon and Strings [21:53]
Robert Thompson (bassoon)
Fine Arts Quartet
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Bassoon Concerto in Bb major, K.491 [17:65]
Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra/Stephen Colburn
rec. Angel Studios, August 1990 (Bax), Peck School of the Arts Zelazo Hall, Univ. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee May 2002 (Downey), Vogel Hall, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 15 Oct 1990 (Mozart)

 

 




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