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Mille Morte - Recital Pieces for Bassoon and Piano
David Muller (bassoon)
Rose Chen (piano)
rec. 2017, Whittier College, USA

In his witty introduction to his booklet notes, bassoonist David Muller explains this disc’s slightly puzzling title, ‘Mille Morte’ – meaning ‘A Thousand Deaths’. Let me reassure you that this collection of bassoon pieces, mostly with piano, is not at all mortifying, except possibly to fellow bassoonists who might well wonder how they will live long enough to be able to master all these notes.

It’s an interesting selection; there are a few well-known works – to bassoonists anyway - namely the Tansman Sonatine, the ‘Flight of the Bumble-Bee’, and at least the theme of Arban’s ‘Carnival of Venice’ Variations.

But there is a number of works by less familiar composers. Peter Schickele is best known as the creator of his fabulous musical lampoons, masquerading as ‘P.D.Q Bach’. It’s great to hear him speaking for himself, as it were, in the rather lovely Summer Serenade, a three-movement piece of which the last one, ‘Songs and Dances’, with its bouncy, flexible rhythms, is the most immediately attractive.

Some of the other tracks are less easy to love. Persichetti’s ‘Parable’ is an unaccompanied ramble, in which one or two unfortunate facts come very much to the fore. Firstly, Muller’s bassoon is a very noisy instrument – I don’t mean the actual tone; rather the clatter of the keys, which is really excessive. This is always a problem when recording the bassoon; and I remember one distinguished player who, near the start of three days of recording Stravinsky, was told by the producer to go and get his bassoon ‘silenced’! There will always be a certain amount of clicking, but here it’s intrusive.

And despite Muller’s brilliance in getting round the instrument, his tone control is less impressive, and he often sounds to be struggling to maintain a decent sound, especially in pianissimo passages. He is not helped by the very boxy sound of the studio recording. The beginning of the Arban Variations is really quite unpleasant in its lack of true cantabile. You can sense the relief with which Muller launches into the quicker moving music.

So, sorry, but some strong reservations. On the positive side, his pianist, Rose Chen gives excellent support at all times, and rises confidently to some of the considerable challenges of the accompaniments. I enjoyed Paul Chihara’s ‘Fleeting Shadows, Still Reflections’, each of the four movements being a portrait of one of the composer’s cats. It’s a ‘spot the tune’ sort of piece; among the quotes I noticed were an oriental dance melody that appears in Hindemith’s ‘Symphonic Metamorphoses’ (and probably in the Weber that Hindemith based his work on), and almost inevitably the opening of ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’.

Of the unaccompanied pieces, the most interesting for me is the Variations on a Theme of Paganini (yes, another one to add to the list!) by Maurice Allard, the great French bassoonist, a legend among fellow instrumentalists. Then Nino Rota who, though famous for his film music, composed an enormous amount of concert and recital music. The Toccata on track 4 is a super short piece that we are told became the basis of the first movement of a bassoon concerto in 1977.

All in all, an ambitious programme with some genuinely attractive music. I salute David Muller for taking on such a massively demanding slice of repertoire, though I feel the recording, even allowing for my reservations about Muller’s playing, doesn’t do him justice.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Alexandre TANSMAN (1897-1986)
Sonatine [8:49]
Nino ROTA (1911-1979)
Toccata [4:05]
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Fantasy for Bassoon [4:33]
Peter SCHICKELE (b.1935)
Summer Serenade [11:35]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Flight of the Bumble Bee [1:33]
Vincent PERSICHETTI (1915-1987)
Parable for Solo Bassoon [5:43]
Jean-Baptiste ARBAN (1825-1889)
Variations on ‘Carnival of Venice’ [9:19]
Paul CHIHARA (b.1938)
Fleeting Shadows, Still Reflections [9:27]
Maurice ALLARD (1923-2004)
Variations on a Theme of Paganini [9:33]
Pierre ANCELIN (1934-2001)
La Naissance de Gargantua [6:00]

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