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8.570798 - VIVALDI, A.: Bassoon Concertos (Complete), Vol. 5
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Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Complete Bassoon Concertos, Vol. 5: RV 466, 469, 473, 491, 496, 497

 

Known in his native Venice as the red priest, from the inherited colour of his hair, Antonio Vivaldi was born in 1678, the son of a barber who later served as a violinist at the great Basilica of St Mark. Vivaldi studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1703. At the same time he won a reputation for himself as a violinist of phenomenal ability and was appointed violin-master at the Ospedale della Pietà. This last was one of four such charitable institutions, established for the education of orphan, indigent or illegitimate girls and boasting a particularly fine musical tradition. Here the girls were trained in music, some of the more talented continuing to serve there as assistant teachers, earning the dowry necessary for marriage. Vivaldi’s association with the Pietà continued intermittently throughout his life, from 1723 under a contract that provided for the composition of two new concertos every month. At the same time he enjoyed a connection with the theatre, as the composer of some fifty operas, director and manager. He finally left Venice in 1741, travelling to Vienna, where there seemed some possibility of furthering his career under imperial patronage, or perhaps with the idea of travelling on to the court at Dresden, where his pupil Pisendel was working. He died in Vienna a few weeks after his arrival in the city, in relative poverty. At one time he had been worth 50,000 ducats a year, it seemed, but now had little to show for it, as he arranged for the sale of some of the music he had brought with him.

Visitors to Venice had borne witness to Vivaldi’s prowess as a violinist, although some found his performance more remarkable than pleasurable. He certainly explored the full possibilities of the instrument, while perfecting the newly developing form of the Italian solo concerto. He left nearly five hundred concertos. Many of these were for the violin, but there were others for a variety of solo instruments or for groups of instruments. He claimed to be able to composer a new work quicker than a copyist could write it out, and he clearly coupled immense facility with a remarkable capacity for variety within the confines of the three-movement form, with its faster outer movements framing a central slow movement.

The girls at the Pietà had a wide variety of instruments available to them, in addition to the usual strings and keyboard instruments of the basic orchestra. These included the bassoon, for which Vivaldi wrote 39 concertos, two of which are seemingly incomplete. The reason for such a number of concertos for a relatively unusual solo instrument is not known, and the fact that one concerto is inscribed to Count Morzin, a patron of Vivaldi from Bohemia and a cousin of Haydn’s early patron, and another to a musician in Venice, Gioseppino Biancardi, reveals little, although it has been suggested that Biancardi represented an earlier tradition of bassoon playing, as a master of its predecessor, the dulcian, in view of the range required of the bassoon in the concerto that carries his name. The bassoon was in general an essential element in the characteristic German court orchestra of the eighteenth century, doubling the bass line and found in proportionately greater numbers than is now usual, not least in military bands. The orchestral bassoon part was not written out, unless it differed, as it very occasionally did, from the bass line played by the cello, double bass and continuo. The fact that bassoons are specifically mentioned as being among the instruments played by the girls of the Pietà seems to indicate that they were used there for this purpose at least. There had been solo works written for the instrument during the seventeenth century and technical changes led to a number of solo concertos by the middle of the eighteenth century. Nevertheless the quantity of bassoon concertos written by Vivaldi remains unusual.

Ten of Vivaldi’s bassoon concertos are in minor keys. One of four in this key, the Concerto in A minor, RV 497, opens with a vigorous ritornello, continuing, after a pause, in a gentler mood with violins and viola, before the initial impetus is restored. The virtuoso solo part starts with figuration based on the tonic chord, before adding rapid runs, its later entries varied by the inclusion of elements drawn from the second part of the opening ritornello. The E minor Andante molto is introduced by the orchestra, with imitative entries, before the bassoon embarks on its own aria, replete with demisemiquaver triplet figuration. The third movement duly starts with the orchestral ritornello, framing solo episodes that include characteristically wide leaps for the solo bassoon.

Fourteen of the concertos are in C major, and the Concerto in C major, RV 473, dated by Ryom in his Vivaldi Werkverzeichnis to 1730/31, the autograph on paper of Bohemian origin, starts with a ritornello in which the violins, at first together and then in thirds, add an answering semiquaver figure to the regular tread of the bass. The solo bassoon enters with the repeated notes of an ascending tonic arpeggio, with a second solo entry in triplet semiquavers and a third ornamented with trills. The A minor Largo is introduced solemnly by the orchestra, before the solo aria, with its ornamentation. The final Minuetto is announced by the orchestra, its two sections repeated. The bassoon, with continuo accompaniment, offers material derived from the Minuet, with four sections, each repeated, before the music of the opening is heard again. The following four repeated sections for the bassoon, again derived from the opening, bring more elaborate figuration, before the Minuet returns once more, to be followed by two repeated passages for the soloist and continuo, with wide leaps in the quaver triplet solo part. The movement ends with the return of the Minuet, each of the two sections repeated pianissimo.

One of seven bassoon concertos in this key, the Concerto in F major, RV 491, bases its opening orchestral ritornello on a descending sequence, with succeeding solo entries of increasing virtuosity. The G minor Largo is based initially on a sequence of chords found elewhere in Vivaldi’s work, notably in the Concerto madrigalesco, RV 129, the Kyrie, RV 587 and in parts of the Magnificat, RV 610 (Naxos 8.570445). With the accompaniment of the orchestra, the soloist offers an aria entirely in semiquavers. The energetic last movement again calls for wide leaps in some of the solo sections, a continuing feature of Vivaldi’s writing for the bassoon.

The opening of the first movement of the Concerto in C major, RV 466, is virtually identical with the aria Quegli occhi luminosi from the second act of the opera Semiramide, staged in Mantua in 1732. The first solo episode is in rapid triplet semiquavers, the second based on a sequence and including wide leaps. The slow movement, in the same key, introduces a pattern of accompaniment that is continued after the solo entry, and the concerto ends with a movement that again treats with endless variety the restricted form in which it is set.

The Concerto in C major, RV 469, is characterized again by wide leaps, suggested first in the opening ritornello, echoed by the bassoon in its first solo entry. The second solo episode, modulating from G major to A minor, uses a wide range of the instrument, and the third starts with triplet quavers, moving to E minor, with the opening motif in C returning to start the fourth solo passage. The Largo, accompanied only by continuo, suggests an aria, with each of its two sections repeated. The final movement offers a ritornello starting with a descending octave leap, the opening figure taken up by the bassoon in the first solo episode, followed by solo passages in which wide leaps are a continuing feature.

The agility of the solo bassoon is demonstrated once more in the Concerto in G minor, RV 496, with its dedication to Ma: dè Morzin, the Bohemian nobleman Count Wenzel von Morzin, to whom Vivaldi dedicated his Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Contest of Harmony and Invention), the collection of concertos that includes the Four Seasons, works already familiar to the dedicatee. The solo episodes in the first movement explore the wide range of the bassoon and its potential agility. The slow movement, for bassoon and continuo, with repeated sections, suggests a pastoral aria. The last movement, in the same key, shared by only one other of the concertos, makes much of a figure derived from the tonic arpeggio in both ritornello and solo episodes.

Keith Anderson


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