Peter Whelan & OAE - Michael Gordon: Bassoon Concerto "Observations on Air" - BachTrack
It's likely that Mozart never actually heard his Clarinet Concerto performed. His friend Anton Stadler gave the première in Prague in October 1791, less than two months before the composer’s early death. That fate, happily, has not been shared by Michael Gordon, who has heard Peter Whelan perform his new bassoon concerto Observations on Air four times this week, culminating in this London performance. The OAE paired it with Mozart's classic under the title 'Winds of Change', although the new concerto in many ways draws its inspiration from the Age of Enlightenment itself.
Gordon's concerto pays homage to Joseph Priestley, Enlightenment scientist whose treatise Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air lends the work its title. The composer describes the bassoon as the lead conversationalist in coffee house gatherings of “Honest Whigs”, including the likes of Benjamin Franklin, imparting a sense of discovery and excitement.
If anything, the work felt more related to the baroque, in particular to Vivaldi, who knew a thing or two about writing for the bassoon (39 concertos and counting). It begins with double basses, then cellos, repeated short motif figures, then rising up the chain to violas and violins, while the bassoon airily sings over them in its tenor register, often in falling phrases. The movement culminates in virtuosic rasping, echoed by oboes, and a long trill. The eerie nocturnal feel of the slow movement evoked the spirit of Vivaldi “La notte”, the strings indulging in ghostly glissandos over which the bassoon gingerly treads. It wasn't until the third movement that the bassoon's more familiar guise – court jester – appeared, Whelan revelling in a dancing theme against pizzicato accompaniment. Director Matthew Truscott beat time with his bow as horns (deliberately) chimed fractionally behind Whelan's theme, the OAE finding its groove as the bassoon engages in a dialogue between its different registers. An engaging work, persuasively played. A lovely touch saw the OAE's bassoonists (redundant in this piece) present bouquets to soloist and composer.