Weber: Symphonies, Bassoon Concerto / Luoma, Kantorow

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This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.


WEBER Symphonies: No. 1; No. 2. Andante e Rondo ungarese. 1 Bassoon Concerto in F 1 Jean-Jacques Kantorow, cond; Jaakko Luoma (bn); 1 Tapiola Sinfonietta BIS 1620 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 67:42)

There is little that can be done for Weber’s gauche, mindless early symphonies, written when he was 21. They are all sparks and bombast, with colorful surfaces but virtually no content. Single woodwinds (there are no clarinets) generally carry the tunes, passing them around the section, while strings offer some relief; brass join in for consistently loud, fanfare-like tutti. The general consensus has been to play the symphonies as fast as possible (to get them over with?). Kantorow does that too, and his 40-piece orchestra, playing modern instruments with all the snap, sparkle, and tonal panache of period practice—more so than Roy Goodman’s period-instrument Hanover Band—makes the most of the symphonies, aided by BIS ’s usual sensational recorded sound. Luoma’s bassoon stands out among the winds; Roger Norrington’s London Classical Players have better-balanced wind soloists, but the overall performances are not as precise. The Second Symphony opens this disc, beginning with a stunning two-bar fanfare; unfortunately, it never does anything with it, making the 10-minute Allegro seem endless. As if the composer immediately recognized the problem, the following three movements whiz by in a mere eight minutes. After the “final” coda and a pause, two brief pp notes from bassoon and low strings bring the proceedings to a close. Haydn did everything better, including jokes and false endings.

Concerted pieces always inspired the best from Weber: three for clarinet, three more for piano, one each for oboe and French horn. These two for bassoon are the cream of that instrument’s repertoire (there also was a kid named Mozart). Playing a bassoon built in 2000 by Wilhelm Heckel—I don’t know if he is related to the creator of the heckelphone—Luoma sails through both works with the greatest of ease, producing consistently lovely tones. Whatever happened to that grumpy old instrument that was so difficult to play?

The First Symphony comes last, probably so that its Presto finale, the most successful movement of the eight, can wind up the disc with a bang. As fine as the CD is, SACD opens up the sound, giving it more life. Trumpets and strings gain clarity and presence, which makes the winds recede slightly from the spotlight. Surround sound adds an airy feeling, but doesn’t alter the basic sound. If you must have Weber’s symphonies, this is certainly the disc to get, especially so given the bonus bassoon works. But the others mentioned also include marvelous bonuses: Melvyn Tan plays the fortepiano Konzertstück with Norrington, and Anthony Halstead plays a natural horn in the Horn Concertino with Goodman.

FANFARE: James H. North

Finely honed performances of charming music played with relish.

These works were all written between 1807 and 1811, so pre-date Weber’s fame as an opera composer. He had just left Breslau, having survived a dreadful accident when his father, a printer, left a nitric acid solution in a wine glass which his son absent-mindedly then drank. His next post was a temporary one, when he went to Bad Carlsruhe and the court of Count Eugen Friedrich of Württemberg-?ls, who, being himself a fair oboist, encouraged Weber to compose. Both symphonies were written there during these idyllic few months, the first in C major in December 1807 and January 1808, the second (also in C major) later the same month. Reflecting the resources he found there, the scoring lacks one flute and most surprisingly there are no clarinets. Solos for the rest abound however, some of them very demanding, so standards must have been high. Obviously the oboe has his plate full, but the remaining winds, particularly the bassoon, are active, so too the French horn and some solo strings; in fact pretty well everyone has their fifteen seconds of fame. Written when Beethoven’s first three symphonies were already known, it is important to regard Weber’s more in Haydn’s style, with the crossing of the cusp between Classic and Romantic reflected more by orchestral colour than any disturbance of formal structure. Even so, these are not predictable works, in particular the finale of the Second, which stops and starts for individual solos before scampering on to the next pause like an American football game. This is Haydn’s wit at work. Much the same can be said of the First Symphony, which highlights individual wind players once again. It is full of confident orchestral outbursts on the one hand - the opera conductor here - and charming melodies of an almost rustic hue. At a minute and a half, the Minuet and Trio of the Second Symphony must be the shortest ever. Note that this recording inexplicably starts with the Second Symphony and ends with the First, easy to miss that as both are in the same key.

The rest of the fare is devoted to two concerted works for bassoon and orchestra. The brief Andante and Hungarian Rondo was originally composed in 1809 for Weber’s violist brother Fritz, while the bassoon transcription was made for the virtuoso player Georg Friedrich Brandt with some inevitably consequent changes. The Rondo’s rhythms emphasise the Hungarian flavour of the music. Weber’s writing exploits fully the facility of the instrument, its agility over a wide range of notes, tonal quality, and its lyrical as well as comical element. It was in March 1810 that he found himself conducting a concert with the Munich Court Orchestra, its programme including a clarinet concertino he had written for Heinrich Bärmann. Its success encouraged the orchestra’s principal players to ask for solo works, so two concertos for clarinet followed in 1811 and, on 28 December, a bassoon concerto for Brandt. He made some revisions in 1822, expression and dynamic indications expanded and some string accompaniments rewritten, and this is the version heard on this CD.

The performances by Jaako Luoma are finely honed in both works. His instrument paints a wide palette of colour, his phrasing is stylish. The Tapiola Sinfonietta under its former (1993-2000) director Jean-Jacques Kantorow match him in detail in a cleanly balanced recording. Both symphonies are played with relish, all solo opportunities exploited to the full. The music is charming, but Weber is surely still going to be remembered best for his operas and their overtures, but at least it gives clarinettists and, in this instance, bassoonists a chance to shine. 

-- Christopher Fifield, MusicWeb International 

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: BIS-SACD-1620

  • UPC: 7318599916200

  • Label: BIS

  • Composer: Carl Maria von Weber

  • Conductor: Jean-Jacques Kantorow

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Tapiola Sinfonietta

  • Performer: Jaakko Luoma