Musical Trapeze Work – Virtuoso music for bassoon and strings

The grouping of one wind instrument with a string trio or quartet is a common one in the classical era, the best-known compositions being by W.A. Mozart for flute, oboe or clarinet and strings. island’s particular blend of instruments produces a unique and sonorous texture through the substitution of the bassoon’s deeper voice for the more common treble instrument. Together with string trio of violin, viola and cello, this combination results in a rich predominance of darker tenor colours.
Whilst Mozart himself sadly never wrote for this instrumentation, there are many compositions by masters such as Devienne, Danzi, Stamitz, Reicha and Krommer. Their music has a uniquely special charm. It is often highly virtuosic, with demanding bravura passage work and theatrical, ostentatious interplay between the instruments, especially bassoon and violin. The instruments compete as much in the expressive power of their melodic material as in virtuosity.
There are movements of sincere cantabile tenderness, often poignant and soulful, as well as much humour and moments of true drama and suspense. This enchanting music has on the whole been neglected since the nineteenth century, when it was very popular amongst audiences and players alike. It is seldom performed and very few recordings exist, island’s recordings of quartets by Devienne, Danzi, Krommer and Reicha being the first made on period instruments. However in some ways this is not surprising. For example, the bassoon for which it was composed was a five or six-keyed instrument which hardly resembles in tone or technique the intricate machinery that is today’s Heckel bassoon. Each chromatic note, for which there is a specific key on the modern bassoon, has to be fingered by means of complicated cross-fingering patterns, each having its own specific tone-colour and attack.

The composers were well aware of these characteristics and exploited them to full musical effect rather than attempting to cover them up as faults. The modern wind-player’s philosophy of evenness and homogeneity throughout the instrument’s range easily reduces the broad spectrum their palettes to paint mere pretty music. These compositions pushed the nineteenth century musician to the extremes of his technical mastery and expressive capabilities, creating a tension and excitement which one easily misses when a modern player tosses them off, however flawlessly.
With these aspects in mind, Jane plays on a range of original 6-7-keyed bassoons from around 1800, made by instrument builders such as the Parisian Porthaux, and the Viennese Griesbacher, or faithful modern copies. In tune with general early music practice, the string players use instruments and bows from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or copies thereof, with gut strings, and without chin rests and cello end pin. For them also the widest range of colours and textures is paramount, as well as the possibility to blend with the bassoon’s less direct attack and focus. Wherever possible island plays from the original manuscripts or first editions to approach more closely the composers’ specific musical and expressive languages.
island concert programmes also include works for string trio, by lesser-known as well as celebrated masters, such as Beethoven, Mozart, Hummel and Schubert.

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