March 15, 2007


Vivaldi: Complete Bassoon Concertos, Volume 4. Tamás Benkócs, bassoon; Béla Drahos conducting the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia. Naxos. $8.99.

Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 6. Keith Brion conducting the Royal Artillery Band. Naxos. $8.99.

      Neither of these new releases is labeled “for collectors only,” but both might as well be. It is highly unlikely that the casual listener will pick up one of these CDs out of a strong desire to hear, say, Vivaldi’s C Major Concerto, RV 470, or Sousa’s Three Quotations. No, these recordings are aimed squarely at people who seek completeness – in one case, all 37 finished Vivaldi bassoon concertos (there are also two fragments); in the other, all 200-plus works by America’s March King.

      There is nothing in particular to distinguish the bassoon concertos on the fourth CD of the Vivaldi series from those on the earlier three. In fact, because of a labeling error, the CD actually bears the number “3” instead of “4,” although it does contain the fourth volume’s music. Vivaldi was the master of the formulaic three-movement concerto, and he wrote them at a prodigious rate, partly from inspiration and partly because he was under contract. He wrote more concertos for the violin than for any other instrument, but his production for the bassoon was also substantial, for unknown reasons. Bassoons were actually more widely used in Vivaldi’s time than they are today, but that was because they were continuo instruments with parts that were usually not written out. The creation of more than three dozen concertos for the instrument is one of the mysteries of Vivaldi’s life.

Tamás Benkócs plays every concerto with style and understanding, and the accompaniment by Béla Drahos and the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia is uniformly excellent. The pieces do tend to blend into one another, but there are some standout movements on this CD. The D Minor Concerto, RV 481 – one of only two that Vivaldi wrote in this key – has a particularly intense first movement, with fast bassoon figurations. The one in A Minor, RV 499 – there are four in this key – is less intense, featuring a second movement with dotted bassoon rhythms against sustained string chords, and a third movement that the bassoon itself starts. The four other concertos here are in major keys. Two are in C Major – Vivaldi wrote 14 in that key. The first movement of RV 477 gives the bassoon lots of highs, lows and bubbling runs, while the Largo is virtually a solo, being for bassoon and continuo only; RV 470 features unexpected pauses in the first movement, in a style that would later be considered Haydnesque, and has an unusually heartfelt Larghetto. Also here is an F Major work, RV 485 – one of seven in this key – featuring string flourishes and bassoon acrobatics in the finale; and a G Major concerto, RV 494 – one of three in this key – with interesting descending figures in the first movement and imitative entries in the Largo.

Like Vivaldi, John Philip Sousa is sometimes thought of as a formulaic composer, but in Sousa’s case, that is a mistake born of hearing only a small percentage of his music. He wrote much more than marches, and many more marches than the few that are played and replayed today. In fact, of the 15 tracks of music on Keith Brion’s latest excellent presentation of Sousa’s works, only seven are what we think of as “Sousa marches” – and only two of those are well known: The Liberty Bell (1893) and The Gladiator (1886), both of which give the Royal Artillery Band plenty of chances to sound forth with drama and enthusiasm. Other marches here are more pedestrian: Dauntless Battalion (1922), The Federal (1910) and The Picador (1889). But two less-known marches turn out to be gems: The Gridiron Club (1926), which has panache as well as jauntiness, and New Mexico (1928), which includes Spanish and Indian themes and orchestral touches.

Even more interesting, though, are the works on this CD that are not marches. Easter Monday on the White House Lawn (1929) is a bouncy bit of ragtime that Sousa wrote as a new finale for his Tales of a Traveler suite. The sextet from The Bride Elect (1897) is rather reserved and operetta-like, and does in fact come from a Sousa operetta. Three Quotations (1895) is a set of three pieces, the first a sort-of-march with sarcastic overtones; the second quiet and gentle; the third syncopated and highly rhythmic. The La Reine de la Mer Waltzes (1886) are stylish ventures in three-quarter time. And The Chariot Race (1890) is a remarkable piece that sounds partly like film music (nearly 70 years before the dramatic race in the most famous version of Ben-Hur), partly like impressions of a fast-moving train, and partly like a thunderstorm.

And there is also a funeral march – one type of march not typically associated with the March King. One of Sousa’s most serous pieces of music, The Golden Star (1919) includes “Taps” in the middle, runs twice as long as many of the composer’s upbeat marches, and shows a side of him that is very rarely displayed. Sousa collectors will welcome the insight into this facet of the composer, just as Vivaldi collectors will enjoy the individual highlights of bassoon concertos inevitably structured in the same fast-slow-fast form.

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