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8.555937 - VIVALDI, A.: Bassoon Concertos (Complete), Vol. 1
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Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Complete Bassoon Concertos Volume 1: RV 471, 476, 480, 487, 493, 498 & 503


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 compose 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. This is implied by the avoidance of the bottom note of the later instrument, B flat. 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. 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 those 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.


Fourteen of Vivaldi’s bassoon concertos are in C major. The Concerto in C major, RV 476, starts with a lively ritornello before the entry of the soloist and the alternation of orchestral and solo passages, the latter calling for considerable virtuosity. The slow movement provides the bassoon with an aria which explores a full range of the instrument, its low notes in contrast to the tenor register of the principal part of the melody. The principle of alternating orchestral ritornello and solo passages is duly followed in the energetic last movement.


The Concerto in F major, RV 487, starts with the expected orchestral introduction, before the entry of the solo bassoon, the solo passages marked by characteristic figuration and a use of the full range of the solo instrument. The slow movement allows the solo instrument wide leaps and the lively final Allegro calls for considerable agility from the soloist.


Vivaldi’s Concerto in C major, RV 471, opens with the usual ritornello, elements of which are to be found in a second-act soprano aria in Vivaldi’s opera La Griselda. The opening is echoed by the solo bassoon, which goes on to more rapid virtuoso figuration. The slow movement, marked Larghetto, offers an A minor tenor aria, with occasional descents to the depths, accompanied by the often unison textures of the string orchestra. The first solo episode of the final Allegro has wide contrasts of register, notably in a downward leap of two octaves, a continuing feature of the writing for the bassoon.


The Concerto in A minor, RV 498, has an effective opening ritornello, leading to a first bassoon episode with wide leaps and a structure based on sequences. The F major central Larghetto has a lyrical bassoon aria, again with an almost antiphonal use of upper and lower registers of the solo instrument. The minor key duly returns for the last movement, the solo bassoon entry marked by sequential writing.


The Concerto in C minor, RV 480, starts with a unison ritornello, elaborated before the solo entry. The returning orchestral framework duly modulates, providing a structure for the solo passages, with their wide leaps and contrasts of register. The direction Andantino quasi minuetto, an editorial addition, indicates the metrical structure of the movement, in 3/8. It is followed by a dramatic final Allegro.


One of four concertos in this key, the Concerto in B flat major, RV 503, has an opening ritornello of abrupt contrasts, before the entry of the bassoon, with its wide leaps and later smoother sequential elements. The G minor slow movement starts in a mood of melancholy, continued in a lyrical bassoon solo. The ritornello of the last movement starts with a descending figure, before moving to a climax. The solo episodes alternate the virtuoso with the lyrical in an effective conclusion.


The Concerto in G major, RV 493, starts with a movement in the usual ritornello structure, containing solo episodes in characteristic figuration. The slow movement is an E minor aria for the solo bassoon, and the last movement is impelled forward with the customary energy, the virtuoso solo passages discreetly accompanied.


Keith Anderson

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