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24.1.12

More Than Just Bassoonery

available at Amazon
Mozart / Rossini / Kreutzer / Crusell, K. Geoghegan, BBC Philharmonic, G. Noseda
(Chandos, 2010)

available at Amazon
French Bassoon Works, K. Geoghegan, P. Fisher
(Chandos, 2009)

available at Amazon
Wolf-Ferrari, Orchestral Works, K. Geoghegan, BBC Philharmonic, G. Noseda
(Chandos, 2009)
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Scottish bassoonist Karen Geoghegan had quite a time just getting to the Music Room of the Phillips Collection, for her recital on Sunday afternoon. Problems obtaining a U.S. visa and flight cancellations almost scuttled the event, but she eventually made it to Washington earlier that morning. It is not an easy thing for a bassoonist to make a career as a soloist, and Geoghegan owes her notoriety to an uneasy association. When she appeared, in 2007, on the BBC reality show Classical Star, someone at Chandos Records took notice and signed her to a recording deal. The intersection of popular culture and classical music may raise some eyebrows at first, but as this innovative, well-played recital showed, there is no question that Geoghegan has chops. The mechanisms that launch a talented musician into a larger career are almost always fickle, so what makes a showcase competition that much more legitimate than a trashy television show? Well, besides the obvious.

You might think that not much has been written for the solo bassoon, and in a way you would be right. Bassoonists have to be more resourceful when selecting repertoire for a recital than, say, a violinist. Bassoonists likely know all or most of the works on this recital -- and there are more on Geoghegan's recent CD of French bassoon works -- but the general listener may be surprised just how well some recent composers have written for the instrument. Interferences, by Roger Boutry, is an ingenious but also fun piece that sets the piano and bassoon in opposition, with some sections in different tempos, but also with jazzy extended harmony and some Stravinsky-esque barbaric passages. The longest piece was a full-fledged sonata by Gustav Schreck (E♭ major, op. 9), with a first movement shot through Romantic yearning and a flexible sense of rubato. In the second movement Geoghegan spun out a lovely legato line, with British pianist Timothy End, playing sensitive accompaniment, providing a tango-like background for some sections.

Schreck's third movement plays on the comic nature often ascribed to the bassoon, also featured in an even more virtuosic light in the Introduction and Polonaise, op. 9, by bassoonist and composer Carl Jacobi. While that piece impressed more by its fireworks than anything else, a few other miniatures showed the bassoon's tuneful, exotic, and even sensuous side. Elgar's Romance, op. 62, originally accompanied by orchestra but played here in a piano reduction, was a moody little bonbon, with turbulent and soaring writing for the bassoon and whiffs of cocktail piano. Henri Dutilleux has disowned his Sarabande et Cortège for bassoon and piano, from 1942, because its early style is too tonal: its delightful melodies and the absurd grotesquerie of the conclusion could be Poulenc and no less enjoyable for their lack of modernist rigor. Most surprising of all was the success of a new arrangement of Gershwin's song Summertime, published by David Arnold in 2008. Most of the tune was set in the bassoon's dulcet high register, with a surprise modulation into the middle section in which the piano takes the melody and the bassoon is given freedom to riff. The bassoon is much more than just a clown.

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