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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Bassoon Concerto in B flat major, K191 [17:30]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Bassoon Concerto in F major, op. 75 [17:08]
Édouard du PUY (1770-1822)
Bassoon Concerto in C minor (1812) [30:30]
Bram van Sambeek (bassoon)
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Alexei Ogrintchouk
rec. 2019, Örebro, Sweden
BIS BIS-2467 SACD [66:15]

If you haven’t yet made the (musical) acquaintance of the remarkable Dutch bassoonist Bram van Sambeek, this brilliant and entertaining SACD is the ideal opportunity. He is surely one of the most gifted instrumentalists in the world today, and, now forty years old, has an enviable international career and reputation. (N.B. for nerdy bassoonists – van Sambeek plays at one point on the final track a high A flat – yes, the one above the top of the treble clef! I’ve certainly never heard one played before, let alone recorded!)

The first two items on this disc – the Mozart and Weber concertos – are the best-known and most often recorded works for solo bassoon. This instrument’s repertoire is a good deal larger than you might think, with an enormous number of Baroque pieces – more than thirty concerti by Vivaldi alone. But later works are quite few and far between, which is why it’s exciting to come across a new 19th century piece on this disc, written by the French composer Édouard du Puy, an exact contemporary of Beethoven. Du Puy was a fascinating figure; highly talented both as composer and singer, he acquired an attractive post in Prussia at the age of sixteen, only to be kicked out six years later when he interrupted a service by galloping into the church on horseback – as you do. He spent most of his life thereafter in Sweden and Denmark, acquiring quite a reputation. His behaviour, however, was often mischievously eccentric as well as licentious, and he probably hindered his own career by causing offence – not hard to believe when you listen to this extraordinary concerto.

It is a highly original, almost anarchic work, even though it is cast in the conventional three-movement concerto form. The first little surprise is when the soloist joins in during the opening orchestral ritornello, duetting sweetly with a clarinet. Little twists and turns of that sort occur throughout the Allegro section. C minor was of course a very particular key for Beethoven; and du Puy contrasts Beethovenian minor key drama with mellow lyricism in E flat major. This opening movement is no less than 13 minutes in length, a near Brahmsian expansiveness. The Adagio that follows is a lovely lyrical movement, exploring the unique quality of the high register, and with some delightful exchanges between soloist and woodwind. Van Sambeek’s playing is very beautiful (though he might possibly have had another go at one or two of the trills). The movement ends with an amazing sustained top E flat.

The finale, back in C minor after the major key of the Adagio, is the most obviously attractive movement, a Rondo whose main theme is a wicked little dance tune in Hungarian style. Van Sambeek plays with such wit and phenomenal technique – fingering and tonguing as well as the extreme high notes – that the whole thing is a huge treat, and surel can’t fail to make anyone still sentient smile or even giggle. The ending is another nice touch; it seems to be finishing softly, until the orchestra bursts in with the final chords.

In his engaging booklet notes, van Sambeek mentions that, when he discovered this piece, he asked the arranger and composer Marijn van Prooijen ‘edit the autograph into a proper edition’. In the nicest possible way, I did wonder how far that ‘editing’ might have gone; there are some wonderful moments for the trombones in the finale, growling away in the lower register, which sounds almost unbelievable orchestration for 1812. Perhaps Berlioz learnt a thing or two from this; or then again…….

The other two concertos are given characterful and lively performances by this exceptional musician. The Mozart has of course been recorded dozens and dozens of times, and I wouldn’t make this version my favourite (I would go instead for Klaus Thunemann’s lovely performance from the 1980s on Claves), but it has the same humour and élan as the du Puy, so is undoubtedly enjoyable.

However, his Weber Concerto is just fabulous – the gymnastics of the finale are irresistible – and must indeed be the best, for me, so far recorded, though Milan Turković for DG is also very fine. Throughout this recording, van Sambeek is accompanied with beautiful and imaginative playing from the Swedish CO under the baton of Alexei Ogrintchouk, himself a woodwind player of high renown, being principal oboe of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. Double-reed kinship.

In Bram van Sambeek’s biography in the booklet notes, we are told that he sometimes likes to play the audience to sleep, then let them spend the night in the concert hall. Hmmmm…… None shall sleep through this disc – what a winner!

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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