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I Was Like WOW - Contemporary Music for Bassoon
Elena KATS-CHERNIN (b 1957)
Slicked-Back Tango, Faded Curtains, Nonchalance, Afterwards, Peggy’s Minute Rag [15:52]
Johannes Maria STAUD (b 1974)
Celluloid for Solo Bassoon [11:26]
Pierluigi BILLONE (b 1960)
Blaues Fragment for Solo Bassoon [10:18]
Jacob TER VELDHUIS (b 1951)
I Was Like WOW for Bassoon and CD [10:37]
Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b 1931)
Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings [25:21]
Lorelei Dowling (bassoon)
Elena Kats-Chernin (piano), Klangforum Wien/Johannes Kalitzke
rec. Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 1998 (Gubaidulina); Studio 227, ABC, Sydney, 2013 (other works)

There is a perhaps surprisingly rich literature of contemporary and near-contemporary music for bassoon, and a good deal of it has been recorded. The most notable collection to appear hitherto on disc is probably that featuring Rino Vernizzi and the New Music Studium under Antonio Plotino, which contains substantial works by, amongst others, Jolivet, Stockhausen, Françaix and Gubaidulina (Arts Music 47644-2). Vernizzi’s anthology, recorded in 2001, is now in a sense brought up to date by this new CD from the Australian bassoonist Lorelei Dowling, the bulk of which showcases works from the twenty-first century. Not that the idea of updating the recorded catalogue seems to have played any significant role in Dowling’s planning for this disc. Rather, its purpose is essentially personal: as she herself writes, “This CD came about because I wanted to showcase my life through a palette of bassoon colours. The pieces reflect where I have come from, and where I am now. I want to take the listener on a voyage, from lyrical to challenging music”. This approach is underscored by the booklet’s artwork, which features characterful but elegant drawings by Holger Hürfeld of the composers represented, but also of Dowling, her bassoon, her car and three dogs.

In practice the collection moves pretty quickly from “lyrical” to “challenging”. It begins with five pieces for bassoon and piano by the Russian-Australian composer and pianist Elena Kats-Chernin, a close friend of Dowling’s. Dating variously from between 1996 and 2012, these pieces were not originally intended to form constituent parts of a suite ‒ three of them were either written for or inspired by films, whilst two were personal commissions; in fact, though, they function very well together. Kats-Chernin’s idiom is most approachable and attractive ‒ atmospheric and tuneful, but with an interesting admixture of what comes across as Eastern European melancholy (or perhaps wistfulness).

Challenges, both to the bassoonist and to the listener, then come thick and fast in pieces for solo bassoon by Johannes Maria Staud and Pierluigi Billone. It is impossible not to see these two works as standing in the tradition established by Stockhausen’s In Freundschaft and Berio’s Sequenza XII, with their attempts to expand the technical and (to a lesser extent?) expressive possibilities of the bassoon beyond what earlier composers had attempted. Dowling’s playing is jaw-droppingly brilliant, though I did not myself find that the music held my attention as firmly or consistently as do the Stockhausen or the Berio. In saying that, however, I am probably setting the bar unrealistically high; and certainly both Staud and Billone have much to say that is individual and worth hearing. The former’s Celluloid (from 2011), for example, derives inspiration from a poem by Rolf Dieter Brinkmann that thematises celluloid’s (bassoon-like?) ability to expand and extend itself, whereas much of Billone’s Blaues Fragment (completed in 2010) brings out the bassoon’s melancholy eloquence as well as its virtuosic potential.

The inclusion of I was like WOW (2006) by the Dutch ‘avant pop’ composer Jacob Ter Veldhuis (also known as ‘Jacob TV’) results at least in part, according to the booklet, from Dowling’s sense that “as a contemporary artist” she should make a contemporary political statement. Ter Veldhuis’s work is described as an example of ‘boombox music’, in which “live instruments play along with the melody and rhythm of speech, layered over a ‘grooving’ sound track”. In this instance we hear excerpts from interviews given by two young American soldiers who had returned from war in Iraq physically and psychologically damaged, along with pre-recorded soundbites from Muddy Waters’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” and Dowling’s ‘live’ bassoon accompaniment (or is it obbligato?). I have to confess to some bafflement about how to assess this work. It is in many ways an arresting experience, and one which would no doubt have a significant impact in concert; but its constituent elements do not ‒ to me at least ‒ cohere in readily comprehensible ways, and I’m not sure that it is really suited to repeated domestic listening. One wonders also whether Ter Veldhuis’s original scoring, which asked for a trombone rather than a bassoon, might be a trifle more effective. Certainly an element of brassy assertiveness, as distinct from mellow woodwind eloquence, seems at times to be called for.

After this sequence, Sofia Gubaidulina’s magnificent Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings seems both a fitting climax and a slightly strange outlier. It dates from as early as 1975, is the only work on the disc that features a string ensemble, and Lorelei Dowling’s performance of it was recorded some fifteen years earlier than the rest of the compilation ‒ as well as on a different continent. For the first time Dowling here also faces competition from other bassoonists, such as Vernizzi (on the recording mentioned above), Sergio Azzolini (review), Gustavo Nuñez, Harri Ahmas and, not least, the work’s dedicatee Valeri Popov. His version with Pyotr Meshchaninov on Chandos (CHAN 9717) enjoys a particular authority, and comes with other bassoon works by Gubaidulina. Vernizzi’s performance is also very fine, is somewhat better recorded, and is particularly strong in conveying the work’s very real emotional intensity, especially in its slow second movement. That said, Dowling’s performance, recorded live with the outstanding cellos and basses of Klangforum Wien under Johannes Kalitzke, is also distinctive and persuasive. Such things are relative in the context of Gubaidulina’s trademark tendency towards agonized lament, but Dowling brings out a certain gentleness and almost playful (tragi-?)comedy in the writing, and consistently conveys the idea that the bassoon in some way represents the individual, struggling against the power and inflexibility of the masses, represented by the strings. The (originally radio) recording, though, is adequate rather than outstanding, and I at least was disturbed by some at times prominent audience noise, which would grow still more annoying on repeated hearings.

In the face of such competition, then, I would not say that the disc is necessarily worth buying for the Gubaidulina alone. The 50-minute conspectus of twenty-first century bassoon music that it offers is, however, both appealing and interesting, even if not all the music comes across as inhabiting the very first rank. Dowling’s playing emphatically does, though, and her disc as a whole can confidently be recommended to bassoon aficionados, as well as – should such people exist – to Gubaidulina completists. For less specialized listeners, though, it could not be described as an essential purchase.

Nigel Harris


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