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International Record Review - (03/2013)
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Reviewer:  Mark Pullinger

Vivaldi was a prolific advocate for the bassoon, composing 39 concertos more than for any instrument other than his own, the violin. While the Vivaldi Edition has so far merely scratched the surface of those violin concertos (Volume 5 has just been released), this third volume of concertos takes us to the halfway point in its bassoon explorations.

Where Naïve has used different violinists for each volume of concertos, it remains steadfastly loyal to Sergio Azzolini when it comes to the bassoon discs. In his programme note, Azzolini compares the theatricality of these works to characters ‘at a Venetian masked ball, especially Harlequin. Actually, I detect relatively little of the theatre or the clown here, but plenty of what Azzolini describes as the ‘melancholy concealed beneath that thick fog typical of the Venetian winter’ . . . which is odd because there is no documented evidence that the bassoon was ever played at the Ospedale della Pietà, the institution for which Vivaldi composed much of his music, at all. It’s likely that the majority of his bassoon concertos were written for Antonin Möser, a player at the Bohemian Count Wenzel von Morzin’s court. Nevertheless, the mysterious, fog shrouded canals of Venice are evoked by sometimes sombre nature of these works.

I’ve waxed lyrical about Azzolini’s playing on the two previous discs in this Vivaldi Edition series (November 2010 and January 2012). Nothing changes here in this third volume, although the concertos selected offer fewer overt opportunities for flashy fingerwork (although he chooses to conclude the RV485 with a solo fantasia inspired by the cadenza of one of Vivaldi’s violin concertos written for a religious feast day). Instead, it’s not the burbling outer movements which draw attention but the introspection of the slow middle movements in these six concertos which quietly impress. This brings into focus the playing of L’Aura Soave Cremona, established in 1995 by Diego Cantalupi, who leads the ensemble from the lute, Baroque guitar or theorbo . Compared with other Italian period-instrument ensembles, Cantalupi’s band is less strident, offering a gentle cushion of support without trying to engage in battle with the soloist. It deals in subtle colours rather than brash brush-strokes - ‘l’aura soave’ indeed. Most notable in this recording are Davide Pozzi’s delightful keyboard contributions, on the harpsichord for just the one concerto (RV502), but especially the charming quality of the organ employed in the others, gently shading the almost religious character of some of the concertos.

The Concerto in C minor is especially noteworthy. It opens in circumspect mood — Azzolini describes it as a ‘wise, profound character’ while the central movement allows the soloist to trip in and out of the slightly austere string lines. The finale is livelier, with Azzolini’s bassoon testily buzzing in response to string provocation. The C major Concerto, RV474 is treated to a smaller ensemble of one instrument to a part (two violins, viola, cello, bass and lute), offering a sparer texture.

There’s a confident swagger to most of the opening movements, especially in RV485 and RV502. However, it’s the slow movements which constantly surprise with their melodic invention. The ‘Largo’ of RV502 features gently throbbing violins and violas over which the bassoon laments a tender air lasting over five minutes. That from RV474 is more fond, while the ‘Largo’ of RV494 is solemn and dignified. The poignant playing of Azzolini in RV475’s ‘Adagio’ is exceptional, almost saxophone-like in its smoky timbre. All of these slow movements benefit from the delicate, sensitive contributions by Cantalupi on lute and theorbo, and are enhanced by the pleasing ambience of the Brescian church, complete with distant birdsong (as on earlier volumes).

While the excellence of the playing from Azzolini and L’Aura Soave Cremona comes as no surprise, anyone thinking that Vivaldi concertos are all about flashy pyrotechnics over sewing-machine accompaniments will have those notions challenged by this lovely disc.

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