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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Bassoon Concerto in A minor, RV497 [10:32]
Bassoon Concerto in D minor, RV481 [10:27]
Bassoon Concerto in E minor, RV484 [11:08]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Bassoon Concerto in F major, op.75 [17:46]
André JOLIVET (1905-1974)
Concerto for Bassoon and String Orchestra, Harp and Piano (1954) [14:32]
Rodion Tolmachev (bassoon)
Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra/Ivan Stolbov
rec. 2013 (Jolivet), 2014 (Vivaldi and Weber) – no further details given
MELODIYA MELCD1002413 [64:32]

I hesitate to make the bus analogy; but you can wait ages for a recording of bassoon solo music – then two turn up in the same month! Both Russian as well, and both on the Melodiya label. I reviewed the first of these recently, with soloist Sergei Krasavin (MELCD1002355 - review), though, to be fair, that did consist of recordings made many years ago. The soloist is the brilliant principal bassoonist of the Mariinsky Orchestra, Rodion Tolmachev, who combines darkly handsome Slavic looks with a truly astonishing expertise on his instrument.

The disc’s programme becomes, for me, more and more interesting as it progresses. Mirroring the Krasavin CD, he begins with three Vivaldi concertos, played with a delightful technical fluency, as well as, in the slow movements, finely controlled cantabile tone. In fact, if pressed I would find it hard to identify a player with a more beautiful sound; full, rich and vocal, but never too sweet or saxophone-like, and with sufficient reediness to give bite and edge.

Though Vivaldi wrote for an instrument with a relatively small range (less than three octaves), these works do take some playing, and it’s Tolmachev’s rapid and incisive staccato that often amazes. Bassoonists – prepare to feel jealous! But more than these technical attributes, Tolmachev has a way of bending the music, making it flexible without undermining the essential pulse that Baroque music must always have - the finale of the A minor concerto is a perfect example of this.

That approach also works well, of course, with the 19th century concerto by Weber, which is the most engaging of his concerted works (though as a bassoonist I might be biased!). It has a rather grand first movement, purposeful yet good-humoured, followed by a very lovely lyrical slow movement. But it’s the finale that is so very winning, with its chuckling main theme and always entertaining episodes. Once more, Tolmachev is a totally persuasive advocate for all these qualities.

One drawback noticeable in the Vivaldi concertos, one that becomes more of a problem still in the Weber, is the recording’s over-heavy bass. It gives us thunderous drums in the Weber, so that in the orchestral prelude, the thematic material is barely audible because of the deafening timpani. I don’t much like playing around with controls, but a little bass adjustment might be prudent, especially in this concerto.

Finally, we come to easily the most interesting item on this disc, the Concerto by the French composer André Jolivet, founder of the 1930s group La jeune France, and writer of much music for the theatre as well as for the concert hall. This extraordinary work was composed in 1954 for the great French fagottist Maurice Allard, and, it’s fair to say, explores the technical and expressive potential of the bassoon more fully than any work up to that date.

While Vivaldi and Weber call for considerable facility and musicianship, when we come to Jolivet we’re talking about serious virtuosity. Much of the writing hovers around the extreme high register of the instrument, in that vox humana part of the compass, right at the top of the treble clef. There are phrases that require the player to move smoothly through an enormous range, and others that call for dizzying rapidity of tonguing and fingering. In short, it’s a bit of a nightmare for the player – but what a piece!

It is officially in two movements; but each of those is further divided into two sections, slow-quick. The slower sections are full of wonderful textures, often with a nocturnal feel. The orchestral writing is so imaginative, with dense string textures and splashes or arabesques of piano and harp sound. And the fugato which drives the work to its affirmative conclusion is irresistible in its hustle and bustle.

Jolivet’s style is difficult to pin down; it may be best described as ‘mid-twentieth century dissonant-tonal’, close in that sense to Martinů or even early Lutosławski. Whatever it is, Tolmachev and his Russian colleagues give a compelling and superbly stylish account of this masterpiece. Listening to this disc, it’s not hard to agree with those who claim the bassoon is the most beautiful of all wind instruments. It may well be; but it’s also one of the most difficult, and Tolmachev is an undoubted master.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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