Askonas Holt interviews new signing Peter Whelan (Irish Baroque Orchestra, Ensemble Marsyas).
Kate Molleson interviews bassoonist Peter Whelan for the Herald
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 human."
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 building."
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."