“Gustavo Núñez: Bassoon Capricho” = KEES OLTHUIS: Caprichio for basson and strings; JUARÉS LAMARQUE PONS: Concertino de Verano for bassoon, strings, and percussion; VILLA-LOBOS: Ciranda das Sete Notas for bassoon and strings; GUBAIDULINA: Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings – Gustavo Núñez, bassoon/ members of the Royal Concertgebouw Orch./ Ed Spanjaard, Kees Olthuis – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 33813, 70:15 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2:
Caprichio is an apt title for this album since most of the works therein are capricious, light in spirit, even comical. All of them are also rather lightweight, so if you’re looking for heartier fare for bassoon and orchestra, look elsewhere. However, if one of the bassoon’s traditional personas, that of an instrumental clown, doesn’t offend, you might get a kick out of Caprichio.
The titular piece on the program was written by Kees Olthuis, former principal bassoon of the Concertgebouw, for Gustavo Núñez on commission from the Friends of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. It was originally scored for bassoon and string quintet, but Núñez requested a version for small string orchestra, which is heard here. It starts with a swaggering bit for the orchestra followed by a slow, almost too-serious solo for bassoon in its lower register, but then the bassoon joins the party, capering around above the string accompaniment like an acrobat, often going into the most stratospheric reaches of its range. It’s a virtuoso piece that Núñez manages to make sound easy.
Uruguayan composer Lamarque Pons’s Concertino de Verano of 1975 was dedicated to Gustavo Núñez’s father, Filberto. It’s based on Latin American dances, specifically the milanga (movement 1), tango (movement 2), and candombe (movement 3). The milanga is like a tango only with greater accent on the beat and an underlying habanera rhythm. In Pons’s work, that swinging beat is underscored by the percussion and by the string players’ clapping hands. The more cosmopolitan tango is smoother, and so is Pons’s second movement. Then there’s the candombe, a Uruguayan dance form that originated with African slaves. According to Wikipedia, it’s usually accompanied by three different drums, the chico, repique, and piano drums. The candombe is an altogether more unbuttoned affair than the milanga or tango, with partners dancing apart rather than holding one another. So it is in Pons’s third movement, driven by swirling strings, drums, and wood block—even a Bartók pizzicato at one point. The bassoon happily cavorts through the piece, dancing its own little dance though sometimes responding in canon to its “partner,” the orchestra.
Villa-Lobos’s Ciranda das Sete Notas is based on another dance, the ciranda, which is sung and danced in a circle. “It originated in the Itamaracá region, where fishermen’s wives sung and joined in the dance with repeated rhythms to express their hope that their husbands would return from the sea.” The sete notas (“seven notes”) of the title are heard at the start of the piece, an ascending scale passage based on the seven notes of the diatonic scale. This passage returns again and again as the rhythms get more and more animated, both the solo instrument and strings asked to do a variety of musical calisthenics.
Finally, we have Sophia Gubaidulina, whose avant-garde musical language got her in Dutch with the Soviet authorities and whose music is so often deadly serious. Here, she’s represented instead by the most whimsical piece on the program. The composer herself described the work to Gustavo Núñez as being “about a clown and his relation with the audience. He desires to be taken seriously, but the audience continues to laugh. He becomes furious, but in the end, in the fifth movement which begins with the cadenza, he starts to dance.” This describes the program of the piece but not its character, wherein lies its comical nature. The work starts with the same lofty bassoon note with which the Rite of Spring begins, and the bassoon’s opening solo sounds every bit as serious as that work, but soon, the strings join in with sniggers and joking imitations of the solo part, cleverly written by the composer. It all sounds as if the bassoon is playing some deeply serious Expressionist music in the manner of Schoenberg or Berg while the strings mock his every gesture. When the bassoon retorts, he does so with squawking harmonics. Then, as Gubaidulina suggests, in the spirit of if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em, the bassoon decides to cut a caper and leave ’em laughing. As I say, it’s all cleverly done and could even be considered a wry self-commentary on the composer’s own brand of musical modernism. But for me the joke goes on way too long.
The performances are all smart, witty as can be, and Núñez’s playing, even when he’s clowning around, is virtuoso in spades. Plus Challenge Classics’ surround-sound recording is typically vibrant and impactive. This program isn’t suited to all musical tastes, but given the fine playing and superb recording, it’s certainly good for more than a few laughs.