The Proud Bassoon
Peter Whelan is striving zealously to explode the preconceptions the bassoon is subjected to. This programme of 18th-century music – almost all of it French and German – demonstrates the bassoon’s capabilities to conjure a variety of colours and moods that any serious-minded artist can be proud of. Indeed, it was the early-18th-century theorist and composer Johann Mattheson who described the bassoon as a ‘proud’ instrument, and Whelan’s evangelical booklet essay compares its expressive potential to the heroic haute-contre voice of French Baroque opera.
One imagines Rameau wouldn’t have needed much persuading about this, and two arrangements by him are among the set of popular opera arias that launch this beguiling and kaleidoscopic survey. My jaw dropped at the dexterous virtuosity of Whelan’s playing at the conclusion of ‘Les Sauvages’. The beautifully melodic opening Largo of Boismortier’s Sonata (No 2) in G major provides a significant change of pace and mood; the concluding Giga is fantastic fun. Sonatas by Fasch and Telemann vie for the status of the first known bassoon sonata but more importantly they each show the juxtaposition between ardent singing qualities and flexible brilliance in Whelan’s playing. Accompaniment is delightfully varied from harpsichordist Philippe Grisvard, theorbist Thomas Dunford and cellist Sarah McMahon, whose duets with Whelan in the Treizième Concert from Couperin’s Les goûts-réunis are transfixing. Baroque chamber music showcasing solo bassoon might not sound like an obvious winner but in the event it’s a triumph.