A Bassoonist's Cabinet of Curiosities
[1-3] Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy Sonata in B flat major Opus 45 (orig. for violoncello)
I. Allegro vivace [9:11]
II. Andante [6:02]
III. Allegro assai [7:00]
 Patrick Nunn Gonk for bassoon and sound file [5:58]
 Graham Sheen La Tristesse du Roi for four bassoons [11:02]
La Tristesse 1 - Danseuse - La Tristesse 2 - Guitariste - La Tristesse 3 - Jongleur - La Tristesse 4
[6-7] Paul Hindemith Sonata (1938) for bassoon and piano
I. Leicht bewegt [2:23]
II. Langsam - Marsch - Beschluss, Pastorale-Ruhig [6:18]
[8-10] Graham Sheen Three American Sketches for bassoon and piano
I. Grand Central [1:37]
II. Memorial-Col. Shaw’s Regiment [4:03]
III. Nocturne-Toccata [4:50]
 Carl Jacobi Potpourri über die Oper Zampa von Ferdinand Hérold [10:34]
Opus 16 for bassoon and piano
Poco adagio - Allegro - moderato - Più allegro - Allegretto - Allegro
This is a fascinating disc which contains only one piece that belongs to the mainstream bassoon repertoire, the Sonata 1938 by Hindemith. Most of the remaining works are either written or arranged by the bassoonist Graham Sheen, who now has a considerable catalogue of works (see www.grahamsheen.com) to his credit.
The extensive sleeve notes (supplied within an eye-catchingly designed cover by Graham's daughter, Katy) provide a thorough personal and historical context to the choice of music, which thankfully allows me to focus on what I consider to be this disc's greatest feature - its virtuosic display of the world of contrasts that is the bassoon.
This is nowhere more evident than in the relationship between the Mendelssohn Sonata in Bb (originally for 'cello) and Gonk, a semi-improvised piece for bassoon and sound file. Within the Mendelssohn, Graham achieves a cushion to the sound and a feathering of attack and decay that both encapsulates the original instrumentation and places this performance comfortably in the warmth of a 19th century drawing-room. The clanging doorbell opening of Gonk however, abruptly sweeps us into a dangerous, edgy sound-world where the bassoon leaps and darts around as if trying to escape, eventually failing with a final abrasive outburst of rage. Although the sober opening to La Tristesse du Roi does something to redress the balance, and perhaps return us to bassoon 'normality', the edgy clash of sonorities and dashing rhythmic figures soon place the listener back on alert, with four very different examples of bassoon tone both blending to create new colours whilst remaining clear and distinct. This is a compelling piece, superbly played, which is very much greater than the sum of its parts.
The opening to the Hindemith takes the bleak desolation that hangs in the air at the end of the quartet and, as if turning a page, moves us forward into a more hopeful place. So effective is this that I found myself playing the last 30 seconds of the quartet then manually moving onto the Hindemith in order to short-circuit the silence between tracks! What stands out for me, in this recording, is the way Graham and accompanist Elizabeth Burley balance the relationship between phrasing and timbre. This is particularly noticeable in the second movement where they lay the sound meticulously over the rhythmic structure, creating a lace-delicate sense of tension that must surely be what Hindemith intended.
As with Gonk, 'Grand Central' - the first of the Three American Sketches - crashes in, this time with an urban energy and drive that can only come from America. This is a frenetic, unrelenting movement that utilises the whole range of the instrument, which weaves in and out of the piano part, as if it was one of the commuters the music portrays, dashing for home. The second movement balances this drive with a sombre memorial to one of America's first Civil War regiments formed entirely by African-American men, whilst the third returns us to the city with a nocturnal tour-de-force of flashing lights, dark corners, chases and empty streets.
The final work, a 'Potpourri' by Carl Jacobi, is very much in the style of the Weber Andante and Hungarian Rondo, with larger than life characters, strutting across the stage, singing of their hopes and fears, loves and betrayals. Here we find the bassoon at its most vocal and nimble, with Graham and Elizabeth playing their roles of soloist and chorus with grace, poise and humour.
It is refreshing to encounter a programme order that doesn't refer sequentially to historical or stylistic progression. Instead, this CD begins and ends in the 19th Century, an age where the bassoon played a supporting role with only occasional forays into the soloistic limelight, whilst in-between, the three contemporary works jostle for attention around the oasis of the serene Hindemith Sonata 1938.