Sunday 5 February 2017

Some tremendous works for bassoon and orchestra by Finnish composers Sebastian Fagerlund and Kalevi Aho on a new release from BIS featuring bassoonist Bram van Sambeek

What a good idea it was for BIS Records to couple together works for bassoon by two distinguished Finnish composers, Sebastian Fagerlund and Kalevi Aho.

This new SACD release neatly bookends solo pieces for bassoon with bassoon concerti by each composer performed with bassoonist, Bram van Sambeek with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Okko Kamu and Dima Slobodeniouk

BIS - 2206 SACD

Recipient of Finland's most renowned music prize, the Teosto Prize, Sebastian Fagerlund (b. 1972) is currently composer-in-residence at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Mana, concerto for bassoon and orchestra (2013/14) was commissioned jointly by the Gothenburg and Lahti Symphony Orchestras and the Borletti-Buitoni Trust for the soloist here, Bram van Sambeek. In Finnish Mana suggests invocation whereas in Swedish it alludes to death and exorcism. Percussion and brass open with some fine textures to which the soloist immediately adds rising and falling, earthy phrases. The orchestra soon expands to provide an atmospheric accompaniment over which the bassoon plays some remarkable textures. Soon there is an orchestral passage where some terrific textures are woven by the Lahti players. They slowly increase the tempo and drama before the bassoon returns in a section of more delicate little phrases pointed up by percussion. The music builds passages of tremendous power before falling away to a slow section where the soloist rises and falls over a gentle orchestral accompaniment creating some lovely sounds and great atmosphere.

I particularly love the way Fagerlund floats different instruments of the orchestra through the orchestral texture. Bram van Sambeek provides a wonderful tone and some fine textures and sonorities, rising through some tremendous passages before arriving at the cadenza where this soloist brings more fine sonorities combined with some brilliant virtuosic techniques. When the orchestra returns, a rhythmic tempo emerges around which the soloist weaves a ritualistic line. The music is shot through with fine orchestration and, as the pace quickens, timpani keep the rhythmic beat, building through some frantic moments until suddenly quietening and slowing for the bassoon to weave the melody around the orchestra to a quiet coda.  

This is a highly original concerto of considerable invention. Both soloist and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Okko Kamu provide a tremendous performance.

Fagerlund’s Woodlands for bassoon solo (2012) was a preparation for his concerto Mana. Written for Bram van Sambeek, the composer states that the work sprang from an abstract idea of a mystical realm. The soloist suddenly rises up with a theme that is repeated through a variety of textures and ideas, van Sambeek providing terrific control and flexibility as he works through so many different textures, sonorities and techniques. There are many fine little details as well as some quite magical quieter moments perfectly caught here. There is a passage of rapid virtuosic flexibility and technique with a quite remarkable variety of sounds that Fagerlund asks his soloist to provide, making for a terrific development of a theme that never flags for one second.

One of Finland’s most distinguished composers, Kalevi Aho was appointed the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence in 1992 and its honorary composer in 2011. Solo V for bassoon (1999) was written for Harri Ahmas, solo bassoonist of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, and premiered in Munich in November 1999. Bram van Sambeek opens this challenging work with some deep, ripe notes before developing through some wonderfully characterised phrases that seem to bring out the sound of human feelings and emotion. This soloist reveals some terrific tones as bassoon notes are ‘spat’ out staccato fashion, weaving through quickly changing ideas with passages of rapid, fluent playing. Throughout all the variety of ideas and techniques runs a continuing melody revealed in its many guises, creating individual sounds and motifs before a sudden end.

Aho’s Concerto for bassoon and orchestra was written for the bassoonist, Bence Bogányi who premieres the work with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. The composer speaks of wishing to expand the solo instrument’s sonic and expressive possibilities. In four movements the Andante opens with a wonderful blend of sonorities from the orchestral brass and solo bassoon, beautifully done. They develop through a lovely melody with subtle varied phrases. Aho blends soloist and orchestra so well in passages of deep sonorous notes as well as those higher in the soloist’s range. The orchestra alone increases the tension to which the soloist adds a more animated line, gaining in rhythmic pulse before a more flowing orchestral section develops the drama further. Later the orchestra falls to allow the soloist to bring a passage much like an accompanied cadenza. The orchestra alone rises up passionately again through surging strings to which the bassoon brings an equal passion, almost crying out with emotion. Eventually the music finds a more settled flow as soloist and orchestra weave some exquisite moments to lead to a quiet coda.

A solo violin over the orchestra brings a lively, sparkling theme for the Vivace before the soloist enters with upward rising phrases, soon developed dramatically in the orchestra. The soloist provides some terrific phrases of intense feeling and agility. Later there is a dance like passage where the soloist brings a dialogue with various woodwind instruments rising to a climax to end.

The soloist duets with another bassoon bringing lovely sonorities to the Passacaglia (Adagio) e Cadenza. Strings subtly and gently edge in, timpani rumble as the basses join and the music gains in intensity, the soloist now revealing a melancholy melody that winds its way forward with bell chimes. Aho develops some quite lovely orchestral harmonies, finding an inexorable forward movement, gaining in power all the time. The music falls to a less passionate passage where the soloist weaves gentler phrases over a beautifully transparent orchestra before leading into a cadenza proper where the soloist develops the theme through some beautifully conceived moments, at times with the bassoonist humming an accompaniment whilst playing before increasing in tempo and drama and running into the final movement.

The orchestra alone rises up majestically in the Presto with woodwind soaring and brass appearing before the bassoon joins to take the frenetic theme forward. The music swirls through some terrific orchestral passages, wonderfully played by both soloist and orchestra. At times the soloist moves right across the bassoon’s range but later brings a quieter, gentler rather plaintive moment for soloist and orchestra where a celeste is heard. The orchestra suddenly increases in tempo joined by the bassoon to rush forward in a terrific lead up to the sudden coda.

This is a tremendous concerto of great depth and imagination that deserves to be taken up by solo bassoonists. Again Bram van Sambeek brings a wonderful performance as do the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk.

All in all this is a very welcome release of works that every admirer of these fine composers will want to hear, especially with bassoon playing of such a high order.

They receive tip top recordings and there are excellent booklet notes from Kimmo Korhonen and Kalevi Aho

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