BASSOON POWER · David Breidenthal (bn); Gloria Cheng (pn) · CRYSTAL CD842 (61:07)
PERSICHETTI Parable IV. DUTILLEUX Sarabande et Cortège. G. WOLFGANGMoody Blues. TANSMAN Suite. CHIHARA Fleeting Shadows, Still Reflections; The Beauty of the Rose is in its Passing. Z. SESTAK Five Virtuoso Inventions.
David Breidenthal is a fine, sensitive musician, and has served as principal bassoonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for more than thirty years. Yet despite his impeccable artistry, and despite the indisputable merits of much of the music on the program, there is no avoiding the fact that this recital will be of interest chiefly to bassoonists and other partisans of the instrument. For some reason, dates of composition are conspicuously absent from the program notes, which were provided by Breidenthal himself. Nevertheless, one can describe the program as entirely of 20th-century provenance, divided approximately in half between congenial tonal works and more thorny, largely atonal pieces.
One of the most substantial and fully realized entries is Moody Blues, by the Austrian-born Gernot Wolfgang. Now in his mid-forties and living in Los Angeles, Wolfgang has been active as a film composer and arranger, as well as a jazz guitarist. His growing list of “classical” compositions includes several for bassoon, in addition to this one, which was commissioned by Breidenthal himself. Of all the pieces included here, Moody Blues is perhaps the one that uses the bassoon-and-piano medium with the greatest naturalness and ease. The result is a 12-minute work that embraces blues and jazz elements as well as more abstract, angular materials, smoothly integrating them into a single fluent, well-shaped movement of relatively serious demeanor.
More easily accessible and surprisingly engaging is the short, three-movement Suite for bassoon and piano by Alexandre Tansman. Two lively movements in a strongly French-flavored Neo-Baroque/Classical vein flank a lovely “Sarabande” reminiscent of Ravel. Somewhat similar in style–a tad less ingratiating but no less enjoyable–is Henri Dutilleux’s Sarabande et Cortège, probably the most well-known piece on the program. Strongly influenced by Debussy, the piece comprises a sober opening section followed by a playful quasi-scherzo.
Vincent Persichetti’s Parable for bassoon solo is the fourth of the twenty-five pieces, composed between 1965 and his death in 1987, that he entitled Parables. Most (though by no means all: Parable XX is an entire opera) are very short pieces for monophonic instruments, musically challenging and thoroughly abstract in character. Many allude to thematic material used elsewhere by the composer, and thereby seem to suggest–as does the title Parable–a hidden meaning. Thus they are like musical footnotes to the rest of his output, and derive most of their musical significance from that relationship. For those whose interest lies more in the particular instrument and its repertoire than in the entirety of Persichetti’s compositional legacy, these largely atonal, monophonic developmental essays serve as major challenges to a performer’s perspicacity and musical intelligence.
Zdenek Sestak is a Bohemian composer, now in his late 70s. His Five Virtuoso Inventions are also for bassoon solo and–the first and fifth in particular–bear a considerable resemblance to many of Persichetti’s Parables, in both their atonal language and their focus on monophonic motivic development. While serving as excellent studies for the advanced bassoonist, they offer very little to hold the interest of the general listener.
Born in Seattle in 1938, Paul Chihara is a prolific composer based at UCLA, and has worked in a variety of genres, both commercial and “pure.” What little of his music I have heard has never appealed to me, reminding me somewhat of Takemitsu–not surprising, perhaps, in view of his half-Japanese heritage, if one wants to indulge in stereotypical thinking. Both of his pieces represented here were commissioned by Breidenthal. Fleeting Shadows, Still Reflections for bassoon and piano comprises four short movements, each purporting to be a portrait of one of the composer’s cats, while also suggesting a number of karate moves. Despite its angular tonal language, it attempts to be cute and whimsical, with obvious Japanese references, as well as quotations and other “in-jokes.” The Beauty of the Rose is in its Passing is scored for bassoon, two horns, harp, and percussion, and is, I suppose, somewhat more “serious” in its intentions–an eight-minute “meditation on the transitory nature of beauty and of life.” The ensemble produces some evocative, if spare-textured, sonorities, but the piece as a whole strikes me as precious, pretentious, and vacuous.