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
Crystal Records CD341 TT: 79:51.
BUY NOW FROM ARKIVMUSIC
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
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
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
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
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 significant things had occurred: Welcher decided the piece should
become a concerto, and Dmitri Shostakovich died. The popular mind associates
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
what distinguishes the two players from each other.
S.G.S. (July 2014)