A Harvest of 20th-Century Bassoon Music
Leonard Sharrow (bsn
); Ernest Gold, cond;
Joseph Polisi (bsn
); Thomas Schmidt (pn
); Ronald Roseman (ob
); John Snow (eh
CRYSTAL 341 (79:51)
Concerto da camera for Bassoon and Orchestra.
Ciranda das Sete Notas.
Sumer is Icumen in–Lhude Sing
for Solo Bassoon and Tape.
Motets and Monodies
This appears to be a new-to-CD of recordings previously released on LP and originally made in 1976, nearly 40 years ago. Noting that one of the pieces on the disc was for solo bassoon and tape, I had to wonder if this was really something I ought to be reviewing, for as longtime readers know, this sort of thing is anathema to me and usually calls forth some of my more picturesque panning. But I decided to keep an open mind, recognizing that every piece on the disc had to have been written more than 40 years ago, during a time when the musical avant-garde in America and Western Europe was in full bloom. Much to my pleasant surprise, most of the works on the disc are quite listener-friendly, falling into a modernist style I would describe as being essentially neoromantic on the inside with a facelift of relatively soft-core dissonant harmonies, irregular rhythms, and, in the case of the two orchestral numbers, reimagined instrumental sonorities on the outside.
The Bassoon Concerto by Ray Luke, completed in 1965, is an especially fine example of a traditionally constructed three-movement work that retains a strongly lyrical, melodic bias, while providing the soloist with ample opportunity for virtuosic display. Luke’s concerto represents a significant contribution to the bassoon’s repertoire and deserves to be embraced by all players of the instrument. During a career that spanned more than 40 years, Luke composed more than 80 works, including chamber music, ballets, operas, and pieces for orchestra, band, and chorus. He studied composition under Bernard Rogers at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, earning his Ph.D. in 1960, joined the Oklahoma City University faculty a year later and was subsequently associate conductor of the Oklahoma City Symphony Orchestra. Luke was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1928 and passed away in 2010.
The Concerto da camera by Dan Welcher (b. 1948) was composed over a period of three years, between 1972 and 1975. Like Luke’s concerto, Welcher’s is also in three movements, but with what one might call a musical agenda, namely homage to Shostakovich. As a unifying element throughout the piece, Welcher weaves the familiar D.S.C.H. (D-E♭-C-B♮) motive based on Shostakovich’s name. Welcher also studied at Eastman, earning degrees from there and from the Manhattan School of Music. From 1972 to 1978, he served as principal bassoonist of the Louisville Orchestra. He has also taught at the University of Texas and was a member of the Aspen Music Festival Artist Faculty. In 1990, he was named Composer-in-Residence by the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, and since then he has composed prolifically, producing works in practically every genre, including symphony, concerto, opera, oratorio, and chamber music.
The soloist in the Luke and Welcher works is world-famous bassoonist Leonard Sharrow, who died in 2004. While I find no other current listings for either the bassoon concerto or the Concerto da camera, it’s hard to imagine these pieces played with more assured technique or fluent tone. Sharrow joined the NBC Symphony Orchestra at its inception, and was soon promoted to principal bassoonist under Toscanini. In 1948, Sharrow recorded Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto with the famous maestro, a recording still available, by the way, in the 84-CD RCA Toscanini collection. Sharrow moved to Chicago in 1951, where he played in the Chicago Symphony under Rafael Kubelík. Upon retiring from the orchestra in 1964—he would have thus played under Reiner as well—Sharrow joined the faculty of Indiana University Bloomington and, like Luke, taught at Aspen during the summer festivals there. But his days playing in orchestras weren’t over. In 1977, he assumed the post of co-principal bassoonist in the Pittsburgh Orchestra, his decade there spanning the conductorships of André Previn and Lorin Maazel.
The contents of this disc were originally split between two LPs, which explains why another well-known bassoonist, Joseph Polisi, is featured in the shorter, single-movement works by Villa-Lobos, William Matthews, Marcel Bitsch, and David Noon.
Ciranda das Sete Notas
in 1933, originally scoring it for bassoon and orchestra. In 1958, he made the arrangement for bassoon and piano heard here. A ciranda is a native folk dance of Brazil, the both primitive and sophisticated characteristics of which Villa-Lobos exploits in the piece.
Marcel Bitsch (1921–2011) was a Toulouse-born, Paris Conservatory educated composer who, upon becoming a professor of counterpoint there, acquired a fascination for Bach that bordered on fixation. He produced graphical layouts of Bach’s scores aimed at revealing their underlying structure. As a composer, he doesn’t appear to have been terribly prolific, but his bassoon Concertino gained some currency in the repertoire, with a number of recordings listed in both its bassoon with orchestra and bassoon with piano versions. Written in 1948, its sound world is unmistakably French, reminiscent perhaps of the music of Les Six.
David Noon, born 1946 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, holds graduate degrees in musicology from NYU and in composition from Yale.
Motets and Monodies
was commissioned by Polisi in 1973. The work is scored for oboe, English horn, and bassoon and, according to Noon’s own description, looks to medieval practices, especially those involving isorhythmic techniques. One ought not to expect a Machaut sound-alike, but as a Wikipedia article on isorhythm points out, “The modern musical innovation of integral serialism sprang from a study of the 12-tone compositions of Anton Webern and the isorhythmic organization within the motets of Guillaume de Machaut.” Sound-wise, Webern is a fairly close analog to Noon’s
Motets and Monodies.
I’ve saved for last the piece I was bound to hate, William Matthews’s
Sumer is Icumen in–Lhude Sing
for Solo Bassoon and Tape. First, the literary reference, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a medieval English rota or round, the text of which is in a dialect of Middle English. The opening verses, translated into modern English, are:
Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
It’s simply impossible for me to think of this little ditty without being reminded of the highly humorous parody of it by Ezra Pound. His take on it goes like this:
Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver, Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
There’s more to it, but I won’t take up the space. Like Noon’s piece, Matthews’s
Sumer is Icumen in
was written for Joseph Polisi. It begins with a vocal shout-out, presumably by Polisi, reciting the first line of the poem. To a pre-recorded tape accompaniment comprised of four bassoons fragmented and deconstructed, Polisi plays his solo part, which, at times, sounds uncannily like the opening bars of Stravinsky’s
Rite of Spring
. Midway through, there’s a vocal shriek, some clicking sounds (a bassoon’s keys clicking, perhaps?), and some other hard-to-identify background noises. To me, the whole thing sounds like a gathering of grieving elephants weeping at the funeral of their matriarch. You had to know this one was going to be bad as soon as you saw the word “tape.”
But five pieces out of six, and 72 minutes out of nearly 80 are more than enough for me to accord this release a strong recommendation. I wouldn’t want to split hairs between the playing of Sharrow and Polisi. To my ear, Polisi is every bit Sharrow’s equal in terms of technical prowess and beauty of tone.