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Ronald E Grames
Fanfare, May 2009

For anyone wishing recordings of all 37 completed bassoon concertos by the Red Priest, there is currently only one choice: Daniel Smith on five ASV CDs (552). While this is hardly a bad deal—Smith and his two conductors and orchestras present the works with great energy and dazzling virtuosity—there have always been nagging irritations. Smith is an amazing performer, but every concerto seems like an Olympic event; faster is better—faster and louder better still. If, in the process, he produced a hollow tone—made coarse when overblown, barking low notes here and there, occasional dicey intonation, intermittent fudged figurations where the tempo was set faster than the fingers could fly, it was all in the name of the race. He and the orchestra always got to the end, together, and by golly it was exciting. And yet—and yet—!As much as it seems like ungrateful nit-picking and as much as one is thrilled just to have all of these inventive works so well played, or played at all, in the end one feels that there should be something more than mere pyrotechnics, however breathtaking they might be.

Enter the extraordinary Hungarian bassoonist Tamás Benkócs, principal of the superb Budapest Festival Orchestra. Here at last is the poetry, not the race. Here is elegance and wit and wistfulness and moments of repose to go along with the amazing technical virtuosity. Benkócs doesn’t have us on the edge of our seats, wondering if he is going to make it through a passage; rather he tackles the sometimes-staggering technical challenges with deceptive ease. The tempos are generally a bit slower than are Smith’s, but with that slight relaxation one starts hearing the extraordinary music instead of just the amazing rush of notes. The middle slow movements benefit the most—Benkócs plays them as if he were singing an aria—but the variety that he finds in the fast movements, not to mention the warm solid tone, impeccable intonation, seamlessly blended tenor and bass registers, and precise articulation of even the most demanding passages, is well worth a little loss in raw excitement. I like his playing as well as that of Klaus Thunemann on Philips, and that is high praise indeed. Béla Drahos and his excellent modern-instrument band provide sympathetic accompaniment: buoyant, transparent, restrained in use of vibrato, harpsichord dominated, but with attractive depth. I would have liked them a bit farther forward on the sound stage, but that is a minor quibble…The nice thing about Naxos recordings is that one can experiment for a relatively small investment. That’s what I recommend. Then you can buy the other four, as I did.

James Manheim, January 2009

…each disc has had an abundance of joys that justify it all and more. These are modern-instrument recordings, in the small-ensemble scale and restrained style popularized by the British Baroque-orchestra releases of a couple of decades ago. But even historical-instrument devotees should be able to enjoy the riches of these discs, for the spotlight falls directly on the bassoonist, and Benkócs has no trouble filling it. Many of these concertos are thought to have been written for Vivaldi's young female charges at the Ospedale della Pietà, often called an orphanage but actually more of a depository for the illegitimate daughters of the Venetian aristocracy. The music speaks well for Vivaldi's skills as a music teacher, for much of it is brutally difficult. Benkócs sounds good across the wide range called for in these concertos, with a correspondingly solid lyricism in the slow movements. The music is strikingly ambitious. Some of the concertos seem to date from late in Vivaldi's career, and this is certain in the case of the Bassoon Concerto in C major, RV 473 (tracks 4–6), which was written on Bohemian music paper. Hear the minuet finale of this concerto, unusual enough for the early 1730s, or the extremely varied textures of the opening Allegro, with the bassoon contributing to each movement a dazzling variety of variation and elaboration, and ask yourself who really invented the Classical style. An absolute joy, with fine studio sound from an all-Hungarian engineering team.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, December 2008

One can hardly go wrong with Vivaldi concertos, and if you love the bassoon (as I do), Maestro Benkocs' playing is a balm for the soul. His beautiful, soaring tone and near-unbelievable technical virtuosity are a constant source of wonder, for he plays the unwieldy bassoon with an agility as though it were a penny-whistle! In addition, he confesses a fondness for these 39 concertos, and it shows! I'm looking forward to more of this delicious stuff.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, December 2008

The bassoon inspired Vivaldi to produce some of most likeable and virtuoso scores, this ongoing series, like strawberries and cream, is always predictable, but never fails to provide pure delectation. The concertos form part of his enormous output of almost five hundred for various instruments, most following the familiar pattern of fast outer movements surrounding one of lyrical beauty. Throughout he challenges the greatest bassoon virtuosos with music of finger-knotting complexity. That is ideal for Tamas Benkocs, as it sets him apart from other exponents of the instrument. With his attractive woody tone, he unashamedly adopts fast tempos in the finale movements to provide passages of staggering brilliance, scales whistled through at incredible speed, the passages where he dives around the instrument always unfailingly accurate. But even more important is his ability to turn every work into a masterpiece. Just sample the finale of the C major (RV466), where he not only exhibits his dexterity, but then adds a multitude of dynamic shades. In the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia, with conductor, Bela Drahos, he has a most responsive group whose string intonation and unanimity is always impeccable. Maybe Vivaldi had the foresight to look towards the CD era, as six concertos nicely fill each disc, the present album containing three in C major (RV 466, 469 and 473); Vivaldi’s seldom used key of G minor (RV 496); the energetic F major (RV 491) and, with its vigorous opening allegro molto, the A minor (RV 497). As with previous volumes, the sound engineering is immaculate.

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