Bassoon concertos are hardly a dime-a-dozen, and this one is a beauty!
Instead of adopting the conventional view of the instrument as an awkward, clownish character, the American composer Johnterryl Plumeri whose two lovely programmatic orchestral works, Pride of Baltimore and Windflower have appeared on an earlier GMMC release, has chosen to give the bassoon it's full due as an expressive musical protagonist. In his three-part but single-movement 20 minute fantasia, the element of narrative flow and lyricism very conspicuous in the previous works predominates here as well. With opening and closing Adagios bracketing a more eventful Allegro moderato, this forthrightly fashioned work gets tremendous mileage out of an ominously haunting main theme and it's germinally hypnotic accompanying figure both characterized by a note of nostalgic anxiety. These two cognate ideas gradually merge and modulate into a dramatic confrontation before quickly metamorphosing into an epiphanic apotheosis full of regretful acceptance. The emotional curve of this music has a kind of dramatic inevitability that just carries the listener along without questioning and leaves him fully gratified, very much like the best of Tchaikovsky's efforts. This is the kind of bassoon concerto one had hoped John Williams would have given us in place of the arid and episodic New Age dabblings of his Five Sacred Trees available on Sony.
The pairing of an unknown new work with such a hoary chestnut as the Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" may seem somewhat perverse, but aside from the fact that a memorable scene-setting bassoon solo opens this staple of the repertoire, Plumeri approaches the piece as if it were just as newly minted as his own work. And for those of us who have taken the work for granted and not even actually "listened" to it for many years, this carefully paced and lucidly executed rendering is aurally revelatory. Rather than exaggerate or wallow in the score's pitfalls for potential excess, Plumeri just lets the music simply unveil itself without any forcing, with particular attention to details of woodwind figuration. And since this orchestra can no doubt perform the piece in their collective sleep, they deliver a truly effortless and naturally breathing reading that is genuinely affecting.
Though this listener still harbors doubts as to whether this is truly a symphony, such as the Fourth and Fifth, rather that a sublimely manipulative stringing together of four well- contrasted, self-sufficient fragments, Plumeri proves himself a skillful and self-effacing conductor, whose bassoon concerto holds its own in this company because both composers view their technical command as adjuncts to the communication of feeling and not as an end in itself.
The acoustic ambiance has great depth and clarity and remains far superior to that offered by this orchestra on other labels. A surprisingly lovely disc!
Paul A. Snook
1. Symphony No. 6 Pathetique Adagio Adante
2. Allegro con Grazia
3. Allegro molto vivace
4. Finale adagio lamentoso - Andante
5. Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra