Marc Vallon, Bassoon Recording Reviews
The Double Reed Vol.38 No.3
This recording is exceptional in many ways: It is the first to feature a modern replica of a bassoon by Jean-Nicolas Savary, it presents works that see their first recording on a period instrument, and at last but not least, it features an exceptional performance by Munich-based Australian bassoonist, Lyndon Watts.
In 1819, Jean Nicolas Savary took over his father’s business and set himself to produce in his Parisian workshop woodwinds and, specifically, bassoons of exceptional quality. This explains why the English music critic Charles Russell Day described Jean-Nicolas Savary in his “Descriptive Catalogue of the Musical Instruments Recently Exhibited at the Royal Military Exhibition, London, 1890“ the “Stradivari of the bassoon.” Savary’s prolific (there are more than sixty instruments surviving to this day) production is exemplary. The refinement of the craftsmanship and the artistic qualities of the instruments are such that they were still in use at the beginning of the twentieth century, some of them having their wing joint shortened to accommodate the historical never-ending rise of pitch.
This CD project started with a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation, which funded the first ever reconstruction of an original Savary bassoon. In a close collaboration Swiss woodwind maker Walter Bassetto and Lyndon Watts came up with a reproduction based on an 1823 instrument in the collection of the late William Waterhouse. One might wonder why go to the trouble to make a replica since original Savary instruments are relatively available and periodically come on the market. The rationale behind this is based on the principle that if one wants to sound like an original, one should definitely play a replica. The chances that the bore and tone holes size of an instrument made in 1820 have not been substantially altered over almost two hundred years are very slim. Only a careful reconstruction based on several originals, attentive design, and use of new wood can bring an historical instrument to its closest original condition and therefore feature its genuine playing characteristics.
Bassoonists have always shown interest in Savary instruments. The late Brian Pollard uses one in the first period instrument recording of Rameau’s Hyppolyte et Aricie (1978) and the late Masahito Tanaka recorded the six Devienne Sonatas, op. 70 (Pavane) on an 154 REVIEWS REVIEWS 1820 Savary Jeune à Paris, the same instrument used by Marc Vallon in Reicha and Danzi woodwind quintets with the Biedermeir Quintet (Globe).
Lyndon Watts’ contribution to the Savary celebration is an amazing CD in terms of the musicality and proficiency of the performers. Fortepianist Edoardo Torbianelli plays an original Viennese instrument and flutist Marion Treupel-Franck performs on a copy of a Grenser flute.
The first and last pieces featured, Tamplini’s Fantasia di Bravura on themes by Donizetti and Berr’s account of Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra, give Mr. Watts the occasion to show his exceptional mastery of the instrument, displaying a dynamic range rarely heard on bassoon recordings, fast fingers, quick tongue, and an utterly satisfying understanding of the bravura style. The slow free introduction is played with perfect timing and an attractive wide variety of tone colors. The cantabile sections have all the smoothness one could ask for and the fast flashy passages are just as effective thanks to the outstanding virtuosity of Mr. Watts.
The Beethoven Trio for flute, bassoon, and piano is famous among bassoonists for its unlikely opening solo to the second movement which brings the instrument to an altitude unusual for that period, an anomaly probably due to the inexperience of a then very young Beethoven.
Alongside this uncomfortable moment, well handled by Mr. Watts, the piece offers some beautiful passages that bear some of the germs of Beethoven’s later genius. The performance is a celebration of what period instruments can bring to the music they were originally designed to play. The woodiness of the flute sound blends very convincingly with the bassoon’s and the sparse use of vibrato, too rarely heard in modern flute playing, creates some gorgeous sound colors, as in the very end of the second movement.
Another benefit for the listeners comes from the fact that the pianoforte does not sustain the sound like a modern Steinway, providing a satisfying transparency to the lines and offering a perfect balance with the bassoon and the flute. Something striking about this recording is that listeners never feel that the wind players have to work hard to get their sound over the piano. The balance is just there, period.
The Reicha duet for bassoon and piano is appropriately named. It treats both instruments on equal footing, featuring in the bassoon part an alternating combination of melodies, bass lines, and counterpoint. Both performers do with this piece what they should do with music that does not exhibit the substantiality of the Beethoven Trio and the flashiness of the bravura genre. Watts and Tobianelli introduce as much variety as possible: variety of dynamics, tone colors, articulations, keeping at all times lively tempos and appealing phrasing.
The CD comes with a twenty-five-page booklet in German, English, and French that features, among other topics, a detailed account of Savary’s work and a series of pictures showing some of the phases of the making of the instrument.
There are many reasons to acquire this CD. Early music performers familiar with the challenges offered by period instruments will be flabbergasted by Mr. Watts’ technically and musically brilliant performance. As for modern players, this album is a very convincing testimony of what these instruments can do when put in skillful hands and will help to put an end to the myth that instruments have “progressed” over the centuries. The Savary bassoon has a rich and colorful sound and its appealing variety of tone in various registers is superbly adapted to the repertoire of its time. Coupled with the pianoforte, it brings these pieces to life with a natural balance that is often difficult to achieve on modern instruments.
This CD, which should be unanimously well received, is a celebration of many talents: The talents of the performers, Ms. Treupel-Franck, Mr. Watts and Mr. Torbianelli, the skills of Mr. Bassetto, and, last but not least, the innovative genius of Jean-Nicolas Savary.