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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1743)
Concerti for Bassoon V
Concerto RV497 in A minor [10:47]
Concerto RV476 in C major [10:24]
Concerto RV486 in F major [9:58]
Concerto RV481 in D minor [12:10]
Concerto RV467 in C major [12:13]
Concerto RV489 in F major [11:10]
Concerto RV479 in C major [10:50]
L’Onda Armonica/Sergio Azzolini (bassoon)
Rec. 2018, Italy
NAĎVE OP30573 [77:30]

Ah! A CD of Vivaldi concertos; so you know what to expect, don’t you? Bustling strings, with a hint of gently plinking harpsichord continuo. So I put this disc in the player, pressed PLAY, and…..ok, the bustling strings; but wait a moment - imperious fanfares from horns and trumpets? Had someone put the wrong CD in the box they sent me? Because this sounds like the prelude to a Wagner music-drama!

No, not the wrong CD, of course, but the beginning of Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto in A minor, played by the remarkable, nay extraordinary, Italian fagottist Sergio Azzolini. It’s no exaggeration to say that he has effectively re-invented these works. He and his ensemble l'Onda Armonica here give us seven concertos (out of a total of thirty-nine Vivaldi seems to have written), with virtuoso technique required not only by the soloist, from whom Vivaldi demands a whole range of pyrotechnic effects and bel canto phrasing, but also by the orchestra, filled out by Azzolini with woodwinds, theorbo, lute, guitar, harp, organ and harpsichord; he’s either a genius or a megalomaniac!
Azzolini explains “I made this choice after an intensive study of the Vivaldi scores preserved in the Dresden library, containing a whole series of compositions originally conceived just for a string ensemble – but highly coloured by the addition of a large number of wind instruments.” So Azzolini’s approach is candidly experimental, and the overall impression is, well, never boring. Some people will cry out ‘Leave Antonio alone – what has he done to harm you?’ It’s true that Vivaldi has received more than his share of ‘special treatments’ over the years, from Nigel Kennedy to Patricia Kopatchinskaya. But this is a composer whose music can quickly descend into banality if performed in a routine way, and Azzolini and his musicians are determined that is never going to happen.

Azzolini rises to Vivaldi’s challenge, and draws an enormous range of tone colours from his instrument - chortling, crying out in pain, singing like an operatic tenor; and that last is indicative of the fact that this treatment makes these concertos a dramatic and operatic experience. To be a little more technical, Azzolini is also a master of so many different styles of tonguing, meaning that the articulation of the bassoon parts has the subtle variety you normally find only in string playing. At one point I even thought he had learned to double-stop – but I can’t believe that!

You can see from the timings that these are very small-scale works, none more than twelve minutes or so. But it does mean that there is little chance of losing interest, given the extreme flexibility of these interpretations. There will undoubtedly be those who will feel that Azzolini and his players have gone too far, both in terms of extreme dynamics - from raging fortissimo to near inaudible pianissimo - and tempo fluctuations. But I confess I was won over; by the end of the rollicking finale to RV479 in C, I was hugely enjoying the wild unpredictability of these readings. Azzolini even includes an unofficial cadenza towards the end of this work, and, as he says, if in violin concertos, why not here? It makes perfect musical sense.

One of the most engaging of these gorgeous concertos is RV486 in F. In the first movement (track 7), Azzolini fashions a duet with first the organ, then later the harpsichord, while in the central Largo he is joined by a bassoon in the orchestra (the wonderful Ai Ikeda, I think). He also finds moments of magical texture; a prime example is found in the opening Allegro of RV 479 in C (track 19), where the bassoon plays quiet staccato figuration against sustained chords pianissimo in the violins – 0:25 – 0:40. It’s even more striking when it returns around 3:36. Moments such as this demonstrate how musicians with real imagination can bring out the latent poetry in Vivaldi’s music.

This is very special music-making, a disc to relish like a dish of glorious Venetian Risotto al nero. There is a very fine series of Vivaldi Bassoon Concertos on Naxos, featuring the superb playing of Hungarian bassoonist Tamás Benkócs. It’s excellent, but presents a far more conventional approach to the idea of the Baroque concerto. This disc is something quite different; you have to try it!

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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