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Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL (1778-1837)
Bassoon Concerto in F, WoO 23 [22:55]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-91)
Bassoon Concerto in B flat, K. 191 [16:09]
Peter von WINTER (1754-1825)
Bassoon Concertino in C minor [12:46]
attr. Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Bassoon Concerto [16:56]
Jaakko Luoma (bassoon), Tapiola Sinfonietta / Janne Nisonen
rec. 2017, Tapiola Concert Hall, Espoo, Finland
ONDINE ODE1324-2 [68:51]

I’m not sure that the bassoon has ever really had a heyday as a solo instrument, but the period between roughly 1770 and 1830 was probably the closest it’s yet come to one. Significant concertante works by the likes of Weber, J. C. Bach, Berwald, Crusell and Kozeluch date from that late-classical-cum-early-romantic era, as do at least three of the works recorded here. The exception is, or might be, the concerto attributed to Rossini, which an obituary of the bassoonist Nazzarino Gatti (1822-93) claims was written for him by the great man in 1845. All I can say is that, if that was the case, the work wasn’t exactly in the vanguard of mid-nineteenth century modernity.

The first concerto on this new disc by the Tapiola Sinfonietta, its principal bassoonist Jaakko Luoma and leader Janne Nisonen (directing from the violin) is the relatively familiar one by Hummel. From the first vibrato-less bar of the strings’ introduction it’s obvious that these performances are to be of the ‘historically informed’ variety: the orchestra uses modern instruments, but is of modest size (some 38 players are listed in the booklet), there are plenty of ‘period’ manners, and the tempi tend towards the fast side – though never overly so, at least to my mind. What you also notice straightaway, though, is the keenness (in every sense of the word) and perceptive alertness of the playing – coupled with a genuinely interactive, collegial, chamber-like feel. This latter quality struck me many times during my first listen to the disc, and it came as no surprise to learn that soloist, orchestra and director are well used to playing with each other.

All these qualities serve Hummel well. He’s one of those composers whom it’s all too easy to damn with faint praise: everything is attractive, charming, elegant, supremely well crafted; but emotional depths are left resolutely unplumbed, and the melodies – though often distinguished – come from the early nineteenth-century’s second drawer, rather than its very top one. He needs help from his performers, in other words, if he’s not to sound just a tad boring. And he certainly gets it here, particularly perhaps in the soloist’s delicate interplay with the orchestra in the second movement and in their delectably perky way with the rondo finale.

Mozart, even at eighteen, was of course in a completely different league, and his early bassoon concerto is surely the finest of its genre. More so than in the performances of past greats like, say, Archie Camden or Gwydion Brooke, it emerges in Luoma’s hands very much as a young man’s music – lithe, lean, energetic, more than a little cheeky, and as sharp as a pin. Soloist and orchestra again interact creatively, drawing attention to many details without dwelling on them; and their phrasing is characterful, even occasionally – as for example in their treatment of dotted rhythms – verging on the idiosyncratic. None of this should imply that they are incapable of delicacy or sensitivity, however. The slow movement, taken at a flowing speed and featuring some fine quiet playing, is among the most beautiful I have heard. Altogether Luoma and his colleagues give a lovely, fresh lick of paint to a well-known work that here sounds as unlike a jaded warhorse as anything could.

So far, so relatively familiar: there is no shortage of recordings which couple the Mozart and Hummel concertos. Even in relatively recent years, bassoonists such as Valeri Popov, Kim Walker, Dag Jensen, Matthias Rácz and Martin Kuuskmann have all offered the two works as a pair. None of these, however, also plays the two other pieces we find in the second half of the new Ondine disc. The C minor Concertino (one of two, it seems) by the Munich-based ‘Kapellmeister’ Peter von Winter is a real rarity. It begins most strikingly, with a disturbed, storm-tossed introduction that sounds like a mixture of a Haydn Sturm und Drang symphony and the opening of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, with perhaps a dash of the Commendatore’s music from Don Giovanni thrown in for good measure. Thereafter, however – bizarrely indeed, almost as soon as the soloist comes in – it seems somehow to lose its nerve. There are occasional renewed rustlings of unease as the thirteen-minute work progresses, but much of the rest of it comes across as pleasant, challengingly virtuosic, but basically conventional. A shame, you can’t help feeling.

And so to the Rossini. Or is it Rossini? I have my doubts. For one thing, if he did write the work in 1845 he must have come out of ill-health induced retirement to do so. And for another thing – well, let’s just say it’s no lost masterpiece. To be sure, there are plenty of Rossinian hallmarks – the first few minutes alone feature skittering crescendos, pizzicato strings, chirping woodwind and a general sense of tuneful jauntiness. But a lot of it seems to try almost too hard to be Rossini, and overall it comes across more as a skilled pastiche of the Swan of Pesaro’s style than an original utterance by the man himself. Not that it’s by any means a worthless piece: the solemn, rather sad slow movement, for example, is very engaging. But the tunes – if you will pardon a self-indulgent return to an earlier image – are more out of Hummel’s drawer than Mozart’s.

Overall, then, the works on offer are a mixed bag; but the performances are consistently excellent. As I say, the teamwork is palpable, and Luoma is the kind of player whose virtuosity seems so secure and natural that it never distracts you from the music. His performances of the Mozart and Hummel are highly distinctive, and more than hold their own against some pretty stiff competition. As to the programme as a whole, there is no competition. You may not want to hear the Winter or, especially, the (Pseudo-?)Rossini all that often, but they’re worth having in a collection; and these artists’ take on Mozart and Hummel is, as I say, rather special.

Nigel Harris

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