Dedication Ursula Leveaux and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Commissioned by Strathclyde Regional Council and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Bassoon solo, flute (+ piccolo), alto flute in G, clarinet in A, bass clarinet in Bb, contrabassoon, 2 horns in F, strings, timpani
1. Presto – Allegro moderato
Short Note by Paul Griffiths
Unusually for him, Davies starts his Bassoon Concerto not with slow music but with speed and brilliance: the opening is a Presto, initiated by the strings, and only at the entry of the soloist does the tempo relax to that of a real introduction. Out of this grow a big dancing Allegro. The slow movement begins and ends with a simple song, around fantastical ornamentation from the soloist. The finale is again a recitative and dance, with a slow coda. The whole work is an immense show of stamina, poetry and athleticism for the bassoon, set against an orchestra coloured by low wind (alto flute, clarinet in A, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, horns).
Extended Note by Stephen Pruslin
Near the end of Strathclyde Concerto No. 7, Maxwell Davies took the unusual step of introducing the basic material of the next concerto in the cycle. This musical link expresses the analogous position of the double bass and bassoon as two of the ‘darklings’ of the orchestra.
In the previous concerto, Davies elevated the double bass to the status of a fully melodic instrument capable of sustained lyrical and dramatic cantabile. Here, he also treats the bassoon as a singer of songs, but equally embraces its potential for whimsy and irony, so that the soloist emerges as a superb character actor even while assuming a leading role.
To set the scene for this character, the work begins with a spectral, fantastical Presto introduction, first for the strings alone and then joined by flutes and clarinets. The soloist enters lento recitando, punctuated by the horns and ‘ghosted’ by the orchestral bass clarinet and contrabassoon. In several previous Strathclyde Concertos, Maxwell Davies set the soloist(s) into relief by omitting registrally or timbrally similar instruments in the orchestra. Here, however, while allowing the bassoon the space it needs, the bass clarinet and contrabassoon emerge as a pair who frequently accompany the soloist as travelling companions. The timpani now announce an orchestral tempo adagio that takes up the bassoon’s recitative before handing it back to the soloist. A dotted figure in the strings signals an increase in tension that accelerates into the movement’s main Allegro moderato.
The strings introduce a first subject for the bassoon that springs buoyantly across duple, triple and compound metres while the bass clarinet and contrabassoon again come along for the ride. The horns’ dotted comment soon becomes a tense undertow in the double basses. Woodwinds take up the principal theme until the timpani usher in the bassoon’s second subject. Its rising fourths pun the ‘source’ theme of Davies’s lifelong favourite Beethoven Piano Sonata, Op. 110. The development begins with several formal puns. First, the scurrying string writing of the presto introduction is incorporated into the main body of the movement. After a rhetorical parenthesis for horns and timpani, the allegro moderato resumes, with the first theme replaced by an earlier bass line that now ‘wears the clothing’ of the introductory bassoon recitative. From here, the music proceeds until it reaches a climax of pure density.
Only then does Davies reveal his formal trump card: the violins recapitulate the bassoon’s opening recitative, which has become the movement’s principal theme, rather as if Tchaikowsky had recalled the introduction to his First Piano Concerto at the climax of its first movement. The solo bassoon then presents the second subject with the earlier ‘bass’ tune high on the flute as the tempo slows from piu moderato to Adagio.
After a pizzicato introduction, that wily pair, the bass clarinet and contrabassoon, ‘step forward’ to seize their opportunity as soloists. But their duet soon accedes to the solo bassoon, who now comes centre stage in a plangent cantilena, accompanied by the original pizzicati. The ‘duettists’ return to mediate between solo and accompaniment.
The remarkable reduction of the musical surface in this first section is now revealed as the calm before the storm. A low timpani tremollando heralds a short transition to the movement’s central section, dominated by a richly ornamented solo bassoon rhapsody marked appassionato, con fantasia. When this has run its course, the orchestra accelerates to allegro moderato, and then quickly retards to adagio. A truncated return of the bassoon cantilena and two orchestral chords bring the movement to a close.
The finale begins with a bassoon recitative doubling as a dramatic and virtuosic accompanied cadenza, supported and punctuated by shifting pairs of orchestral woodwinds and solo strings. This leads to the movement’s main Allegro, which hurls us into a ‘Balanchine ballet’ update of championship flamenco dancing. First, a ‘male variation’ in the form of a swaggering paso doble for the bass clarinet and contrabassoon, then a solo ‘female variation’ for piccolo and finally a mixed pas de trois. All three dancers are revealed as ‘corps de ballet’ when the solo bassoon ‘leaps onto the table’ like Carmen at the inn or Ida Rubinstein in Ravel’s Bolero. From here, the momentum builds irresistibly, with increasingly florid ‘breaks’ for the bassoon interspersed with competitive pas d’action for bass clarinet/contrabassoon vs. horns, until a piu allegro unites the dancers in a giant fandango that winds down in sheer exhaustion, and a timpani outburst announces that the festivities are over. As the dancers disperse, the ‘Op. 110’ theme of the first movement returns nostalgically on the solo bassoon.
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City Halls, Glasgow
Wednesday, 24 November 1993
Scottish Chamber Orchestra