Red Maple - Music for Bassoon & Strings BRIDGE

Red Maple
Joan Tower (b. 1938)
Red Maple for bassoon and string quartet (2013)
Russell Platt (b. 1965)
Quintet for bassoon and string quartet (1996-7)
Mark-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960)
Massarosa for bassoon and string quartet (2018)
Judith Weir (b. 1954)
Wake your wild voice, for bassoon with cello (2008)
Peter Kolkay (bassoon)
Calidore String Quartet
rec. 2022, Concert Hall, Drew University, Madison, USA
Bridge Records 9587 [56]

Chamber music featuring the bassoon with stringed instruments is still in short supply, even though composers such as Devienne, Vanhal and even Mozart (who wrote an attractive sonata for bassoon and ‘cello) were composing for such combinations in the 18th century.  Since then, though, it’s been thin on the ground, with stalwarts such as Gordon Jacob and Jacques Ibert doing their best to fill the gap.

Peter Kolkay is a brilliant young American bassoonist, as can be observed straight away in the work that gives the disc its title, Joan Tower’s Red Maple.  Kolkay possesses the most beautiful tone, rich and vibrant, yet with the essential reedy edge to it.  And his technique is secure and pretty stunning; Tower hasn’t stinted in her virtuoso demands, but Kolkay is equal to them. (I also very much appreciate that the booklet has included the information that he plays on an American-made Fox Model 601 bassoon). 

And I found this piece by Towers to be very beautiful.  It begins high up in the instrument’s tenor register, with a semitonal descent from which the music grows and proliferates.  There are two short cadenza-like passages, and an effectively rapid conclusion.  I was especially impressed with the way the composer has combined the bassoon with the strings; there are frequent moments when she has created delicious new textures by having the bassoon play in unison with a viola or a violin in its low register.  The work is given a wholly convincing and characterful performance by the ensemble.

Russell Platt’s Quintet may be somewhat more ‘conventional’ than Tower’s, but is still well worth hearing. Platt has written some interesting booklet notes, and explains that this is a very early work – his ‘opus 1’ if you like – but is still representative of his main stylistic features.  The opening is magical, and throughout the Quintet the bassoon emerges gradually from a ‘primus inter pares’ status until it dominates the lively final pages.

I was looking forward to hearing Mark-Anthony Turnage’s piece, as he is a composer I admire greatly. It was commissioned by Peter Kolkay, and was written in Tuscany while Turnage was on holiday there (the village he was staying in gives its name, Massarosa, to the piece).   There is a quietly mysterious opening, not unlike that of the Platt, with the bassoon climbing up from beneath cloud-like string harmonies.  There are complex textures in this first movement of the three, with a surprising fugato section towards the end.  Its ethereal close finds the bassoon scherzando below those clouds, now in harmonics.  The central Intermezzo  is for bassoon solo, with some  striking use of aggressive flutter-tonguing, brilliantly executed by Kolkay,  For me, the most striking part of the final movement – ‘Very slow and serene’ –  was a violin cantilena of great beauty; but this a sustained, intensely lyrical movement, with dark undertones, and a disturbingly abrupt ending.

The CD is completed with another work by an outstanding British composer, Judith Weir.  The title is taken from Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘Gathering Song of Donald the Black’.  The ‘cello part, for much of the opening section, consists of triple-stopped drones, while the bassoon part is melodic and free, suggesting the two essential parts of bagpipe music – bag and pipe!  Despite the apparently limited medium, Weir finds great and wonderful varieties of texture and mood – a small gem of a piece.

This is a delightful CD; the playing is of the highest quality, and all the music is thoroughly worth hearing.  Congratulations and thanks to all, especially the talented and resourceful Peter Kolkay.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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