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Fanfare Magazine: 37:4 (03-04/2014) 
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Reviewer: Ronald E. Grames


Both Ensemble Zefiro and bassoonist Albert Grazzi, a founding member, were featured on a 2005 release of the Naïve Vivaldi Edition, a program of diverse concertos. I had rather imagined (and hoped) that that disc might lead to a complete survey of the composer’s 37 completed bassoon concertos by this ensemble, especially when Naïve released a disc of his oboe concertos with Zefiro a few years later. However, as it happens, that label is gradually building its complete set with another Italian period instrument ensemble, L’Aura Soave Cremona, and bassoon soloist Sergio Azzolini. It joins two other modern instrument surveys in progress by Tamás Benkócs (Naxos) and, most recently, Nadina Mackie Jackson (MSR).

It does not appear that this new release is intended as the start of yet another survey. In press material, the program is described as Grazzi’s “personal choice in showing the expressive qualities of the bassoon in Vivaldi’s world,” and there is no promising “volume one” appended to the title. So be it. This release does represent a new start for the ensemble, as the Arcana partnership promises an Ensemble Zefiro series, including new recordings like this and reissues of the ensemble’s earlier releases. The program is a good cross-section of the concertos, major and minor key, earlier and later (as best we can tell, though they all date from later in Vivaldi’s career), technical and expressive, and the sunny and the darker in tone. Grazzi plays a reconstruction of a German Baroque bassoon, with four keys, from the early 18th century. The tone is huskier, reedier, and less resonant than a modern bassoon’s, and the lack of alternative fingerings adds to the challenges of playing the concertos. True to the ensemble’s name, tempos in fast movements tend toward the breezy, so very occasionally this latter is apparent in a slight fudge in a run or a bit of a scramble in a particularly tricky note pattern. In truth, modern-instrument soloists—certainly slapdash Daniel Smith at his racetrack speeds and even, infrequently, the admirable Mackie Jackson—have similar issues. Anton Möser, Gioseppina Biancardi, or the unknown figlie of the Pio Ospedale della Pietá—whoever these were written for—must have been amazing virtuosos.

As for the sound of the Baroque bassoon, many will count that a virtue. Grazzi’s use of a German model is consistent with a belief that many of these concertos were written for Möser and the court orchestra of Count Wenzel von Morzin of Prague. Sergio Azzolini uses a copy of a Venetian instrument of the same period with a notably more open tone. In any case, the ear adjusts to the different timbre, Grazzi plays with a singing line, the tenor and bass registers are nicely integrated, and the balance with the small chamber ensemble—seven players for most of the concertos—is ideal. The subtle use of a theorbo, with or instead of harpsichord or organ, adds an appealing period color to the performances of some of the more lyrical movements.

Hard as it is to believe, we bassoon fans are now rather spoiled for choice. Even if one does not wish to wait for a complete set of the Red Priest’s bassoon concertos—will Naxos ever release volume six?—it would likely be possible to put together a collection of all of them without recourse to Daniel Smith’s controversial ASV set, now out of print in any case. In assembling such a collection, this exhilarating new release should certainly take a prominent place.

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