Kate Molleson interviews bassoonist Peter Whelan for the Herald
10 April 2014
The Proud Basson
That's the name of a new album
of baroque chamber music from the Irish bassoonist Peter Whelan and Ensemble
Marsyas. There is no exclamation mark, no hint of irony. The cover art shows an
elegant 18th-century chap holding an elegant 18th-century wooden instrument.
The text is in unapologetic lime green. Because "proud", Whelan
explains, is an adjective that was once regularly applied to the instrument.
"Most people nowadays
associate a bassoon with extreme or funny music: the strangled opening of The
Rite Of Spring, Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the grandfather in
Peter And The Wolf. There's an episode of The Simpsons in which Mr Burns is
portrayed by a bassoon (Homer is a tuba). In German the instrument is called a
faggot. In English the word sounds like buffoon or baboon. Let's face it: we're
an easy target.
"But in the 18th century
there was no question of it being a comic instrument. Before the clarinet was
invented, it was the most virtuosic of all the winds - Vivaldi wrote 40-odd
concertos for us, and Mozart's bassoonist [Georg Wenzel Ritter] travelled
around Europe with a real celebrity following. Handel and Rameau knew how to
use a bassoon to pack an emotional punch in opera: all they needed was a woman
threatening to kill herself, some soft plucked strings and a dulcet bassoon
line. It was talked of as 'moving' and 'emotional' and 'intimate'. It was often
used to represent nature. It was considered conversational and very
Through the 19th century, as
Europe's concert halls grew and orchestras swelled to fill them, this intimate
voice was increasingly drowned out. Composers began to use the bassoon for its
extreme effects "rather than what it is good at". The mechanism was
updated to try to make it play louder.
"Now it's like an instrument
trying to be something it isn't," says Whelan with a shake of the head.
"The keys on a modern bassoon are like scaffolding around a beautiful
The advances didn't really
work, he says. "Part of the baroque bassoon's charm is its imperfection.
It is human; it isn't even; it isn't loud or shiny."
It demands a listening culture
that celebrates quirks, quietness and subtle colouring - not exactly headline
priorities of today's music industry. The husky tenor voice is hard to hear in
a symphony orchestra; conductors often complain that a bassoon line isn't loud
enough. Whelan describes the result as "a constant identity crisis"
and says that many bassoonists "end up with Stockholm syndrome: they
almost empathise with the idea that they are comic extremists, that they have
to do silly things to get attention".
Whelan is principal bassoonist
of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, a top international soloist and a leading
exponent of historical wind performance. In a single weekend last year he
played at Carnegie Hall one night, Wigmore Hall the next. He is charming, funny
and handsome. If he had chosen a more glamorous instrument - violin or piano,
say - he would be famous. Instead he feels often sidelined. He's happy to laugh
at bassoon jokes, but there's genuine frustration not far below the surface.
Take an incident last summer
when, minutes before a Prom with the SCO, a cleaning cloth got jammed in his
bassoon. As the concert was due to start, Whelan was three storeys beneath the
Royal Albert Hall watching a team of heavies trying to yank the cloth out with
a vice. "In the end I grabbed part of a colleague's instrument and ran on
stage in a blind panic," he remembers. "The television cameras loved
it, of course: it was a bit of fun, a silly story." It provided plenty for
a famous violinist and pianist to talk about on the television programme's
interval feature: they laughed about wardrobe malfunctions they'd experienced
in the entertainment industry.
But for Whelan the incident was
serious. It cost him £6000 to have the cloth drilled out and the inside of his
instrument was badly damaged (he only got it back from the menders last month).
He still looks angry retelling the story. "They were so trivial about it
on the television. The bassoon is such a great companion for so many violin and
piano concertos - it's like a friend that's always there with the soloist. But
none of them asked whether the bassoon was okay. It made me question whether
we're taken seriously as musicians at all."
Cue The Proud Bassoon, which
shows nothing if not serious musicianship. The album features 18th-century gems
by the likes of Boismortier, Fasch, Couperin and Telemann. Whelan's playing is
passionate, gorgeously lyrical and poised. The recording (made at the Wigmore
Hall) shows off his rich, nutty-warm, soft-edged sound.
The point of the album, he
says, is "to draw listeners' attention back to the true voice of the
instrument. It's a colour palette that many people aren't aware of. It isn't
always the clown." He ditches the scaffolding for a baroque instrument (a
modern copy of a 1770 Parisian model) with almost no keys "so that what
you hear is simply wood vibrating. There's no clatter of keys so I can do
smooth, shooby-do articulation. The baroque bassoon is so much more expressive
once you embrace its delicate nature. The act of playing becomes less about
tackling a complex instrument, more about how you're breathing and phrasing. It
becomes like singing."
Peter WhelanThe Proud Bassoon