January 15, 2009


Bruckner: String Quintet in F major; Intermezzo in D minor; String Quartet in C minor; Rondo in C minor. Fine Arts Quartet (Ralph Evans and Efrim Boico, violins; Yuri Gandelsman, viola; Wolfgang Laufer, cello); Gil Sharon, second viola. Naxos. $8.99.

Vivaldi: Complete Bassoon Concertos, Volume 5. Tamás Benkócs, bassoon; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia conducted by Béla Drahos. Naxos. $8.99.

     It is not unheard of for a composer who is identified with one form of music to dabble in another. Verdi, for example, wrote a string quartet in E minor during a delay in a production of Aida in 1873. Yet many listeners will be surprised to find out that Bruckner, in addition to his massive symphonies and sacred works, wrote not one but two pieces of chamber music for strings – and that both of them are very much worth hearing. The Quartet in C minor is the earlier work, dating to 1862, and is both more accessible and less Brucknerian. It disappeared for many years and was rediscovered decades after Bruckner’s death. This is Bruckner’s only string quartet, and it sounds far more like Mendelssohn, with touches of Schubert and Schumann, than like Bruckner himself; indeed, it was written a year before Bruckner completed the student symphony now known as “No. 00,” which is not characteristic of his later symphonic writing. Filled with lyricism and passion, the quartet is a work of poise and balance, showing the composer’s understanding of Classical forms but not really advancing them. As an alternative to the compressed finale, Bruckner wrote a separate, more expansive Rondo that is, in its own way, equally effective. But nothing in this quartet matches the music of the Quintet in F, which dates to 1879, the time of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. This is a very large work, lasting 45 minutes, with a balance among movements reminiscent of that in the symphonies (albeit with a Scherzo placed second rather than third). The thematic groupings, the swelling sounds that suddenly evaporate into silence, the surprising harmonies, and the emotional intensity of the slow movement all reflect Bruckner’s symphonic approach. But the work is attractive as chamber music as well, giving the five instruments plenty of opportunities to meld, diverge and play both with and against one another. Interestingly, this work too has an alternative movement: a simpler and altogether less quirky Intermezzo that could be used instead of the very complex and much more challenging Scherzo. The Fine Arts Quartet, with Gil Sharon added in the Quintet in F, plays all this music with warmth, style and great emotional intensity: a palpable sense of joy emerging from the Quintet’s slow movement is perhaps the highlight of an altogether excellent CD.

     As Bruckner is known primarily as a symphonist, so Vivaldi is known primarily for his violin concertos; he was himself a highly talented (although somewhat controversial) violinist. Indeed, Vivaldi wrote more concertos for the violin than for any other instrument – but, curiously, he wrote an unusually large number for the bassoon; no one is quite sure why. There are 39 Vivaldi bassoon concertos, two of them incomplete, and Tamás Benkócs is skillfully and systematically making his way through all of them, ably abetted by the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia under Béla Drahos. Of the six concertos in Volume 5 of the series, three are in C major: RV 466, 469 and 473. This is the key of 14 of the concertos, so its prominence here is scarcely a surprise. One concerto, RV 491, is in F major – Vivaldi wrote seven in that key. But the most interesting concertos on this disc, placed at its start and finish, are two of the 10 that Vivaldi wrote in minor keys. RV 497 in A minor is distinguished by a particularly intense opening of its first movement, while RV 496 in G minor thoroughly explores the extremes of the solo instrument’s range. Although the bassoon was often relegated in Vivaldi’s time to a continuo position, and in later years to the role of “clown of the orchestra,” Vivaldi grants it more respect, treating it as an instrument that, when well played, is as capable of virtuosity and emotion as any other: all the concertos feature wide leaps in the outer movements, and most require considerable songfulness in their slow central movements. There is, as in all Vivaldi’s concertos, a certain sameness to the fast-slow-fast approach, and to the fact that most of the concertos are around the same length (although RV 473, with a very extended final Minuetto, is longer than usual). Yet there is considerable variety within the formal bounds in which Vivaldi worked, and his bassoon concertos, even if they are not what most listeners would expect from this composer, certainly deserve to be more widely known and more frequently played.

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