A Harvest of 20th-Century Bassoon Music. LUKE: Concerto for Bassoon. WELCHER: Concerto da camera for Bassoon and Orchestra. VILLA-LOBOS: Ciranda das Sete Notas. W. MATTHEWS: Sumer is icumen in -- Lhude sing. BITSCH: Concertino. NOON: Motets and Monodies.
Leonard Sharrow (bassoon); Joseph Polisi (bassoon); Ronald Roseman (oboe); Joseph Snow (English horn); Thomas Schmidt (piano); Crystal Chamber Orchestra/Ernest Gold.
Crystal Records CD341 TT: 79:51.

Burble, burble. Crystal Records has attracted collector interest since the days of only records. Oboist Peter Christ, a student of Bert Gassman (principal of the L. A. Philharmonic), founded the company. Headquartered in Washington State, the label has concentrated on recitals by West Coast wind and brass players, as well as on West Coast and Western composers (Alan Hovhaness, William Kraft, Ray Luke) but hasn't confined itself to those areas. At its best, it records fine performers and scores no one else has. For example, I owe my discovery of Lukas Foss's beautiful Oboe Concerto (Bert Gassman, soloist) to Crystal.

Bassoonists have no superstar careers, in large part because no bassoon concerto has entered general concert repertory. Therefore, they solo when they can and earn their living either teaching or playing in orchestras and chamber groups. The CD program here, while attractive, contains nothing revelatory. Leonard Sharrow enjoyed a distinguished career as principal bassoonist for Toscanini, Reiner, Kubelík, and Steinberg. For years, he taught at Indiana University, Bloomington, housing the Jacobs School of Music, one of America's best. Joseph Polisi currently heads the Juilliard School of Music and wrote an okay bio of William Schuman. Sharrow plays the concertos on this disc, Polisi the chamber music.

Ray Luke, born in Texas, studied with various people, most notably Bernard Rogers at the Eastman School of Music. His concerto's a fine example of interwar American neoclassicism. It runs to the usual three movements: rapid sonata-allegro, slow song form, and a fast rondo finale. It uses the semitone as its characteristic interval, and harmonically one notices frequent clashes between major and minor thirds. The outer movements take on the character of divertimento. The middle one provides solemn depth. The score lacks only memorable themes.

I've heard a lot of Dan Welcher's music, mostly because he teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, where I currently live. I find his music variable. Some pieces I like a lot; others I could do without. I recently heard in live performance a powerful work for double string quartet, currently my favorite Welcher score by far.

Sharrow commissioned Welcher, a bassoonist himself, to write a sonata for the instrument. Other things got in the way, and after a delay of two years, two significant things had occurred: Welcher decided the piece should become a concerto, and Dmitri Shostakovich died. The popular mind associates the bassoon with comedy (remember The Sorcerer's Apprentice?). Welcher deliberately sets out to compose a drop-dead serious work for the instrument. Shostakovich enters the concerto by way of his musical signature (D - E-flat - C - B, or in the German nomenclature D-S-C-H -- Germans spell the composer's surname "Schostakowitsch").
The concerto falls into an unusual three movements: an opening sonata-allegro; a scherzo; and a slow movement. Welcher has produced a well-crafted score, although unfortunately a forgettable one. The excitement level rises quickly where the composer employs the Shostakovich motif, including a stretto and a double fugue, but in few other places, and the thought that Shostakovich used the material far more powerfully -- just think of his String Quartet No. 8 -- dominates my impression of the Welcher. Welcher's score seems not vulgar enough, like a bland chili.

Villa-Lobos's Ciranda des Sete Notas typifies the composer's nationalism. A ciranda is a dance from Brazil's Sao Paolo area, but only first part of the entire piece (in three large sections) strikes me as a ciranda, since it's the only part that works a theme of seven notes (sete notas). Villa-Lobos often played fast and loose with his titles. What I call the ciranda acts as an introduction to a more agitated second part. A transition, full of Villa-Lobos's "Amazon jungle" mannerisms and quasi-improvisatory, leads to a gracefully syncopated finale. The piece as a whole lacks formal cohesion -- that is, if you analyzed it looking for common patterns, you'd find one section had little to do with the others -- but you probably won't care. Villa-Lobos's powers of invention make such criticism trivial. The Ciranda delights.

William Matthews's Sumer is icumen in -- Lhude sing has the bassoon singing against a tape of four bassoons. The genre of live performer against tape enjoyed a vogue in the Sixties and Seventies, and most of the specific works, as far as I am concerned were dreck. Few of them get performed today. I doubt few of them saw a second performance. This falls into the dreck category. Matthews does himself no favors by alluding to Sumer is icumen in, one of the oldest polyphonic pieces in Western music and still fresh today. Outside of a few cuckoo calls, Matthews's music has nothing in common with the referent. Instead, there's an emphasis on "extended" sounds -- overblowing, for example -- and "deconstructing" the bassoon piece by piece. Emphasis on technical means add up to expressive zero. I don't much miss that part of the Seventies.

Marcel Bitsch's Concertino, in reality a test piece written for the Paris Conservatoire where the composer taught counterpoint, recalls many Modern French scores. It reminds me most of Ibert, mixing a pastel orientalism with French folk dance. It tests the bassoonist's mastery of range, high and low, legato line, and quick tempo without veering into the virtuosic -- all so gracefully that one barely notices its difficulty.

Noon's Motets and Monodies for oboe, English horn, and bassoon alternates polyphonic sections (motets) with solos (monodies). It sounds like classic serialism, although I can't confirm that without a score. I get confused with most Modern pieces who claim a basis in the medieval isorhythmic motet, in that I don't often hear the repetitive patterns so much a part of the original. Noon asserts that the solos allude to Baroque recitative. I don't hear that either. However, you don't have to grok a composer's specific intent in order to enjoy the piece. I love the interplay of instruments in the motets and the avoidance of serial cliché in the monodies. The score overall exudes great musicality.

I don't play any wind instrument other than elementary recorder, so I certainly don't understand what constitutes bassoon technique. My current favorite bassoonist is Benjamin Coelho, but not because of technical considerations. His musicianship transcends technical matters, although even those seem to me rock-solid. Sharrow seems a good player, but I have little idea why he's special. Polisi shows a nice legato line in the Bitsch Concertino and certainly gets through some gnarled postwar scores without disaster, but I can't answer why he outplays Sharrow or Sharrow outplays him or even what distinguishes the two players from each other.

S.G.S. (July 2014)