OFF THE TOP of your head, can you name two or three of the world's greatest bassoon players? Nor can I: the unfortunate bassoon has in recent times been much neglected as a solo instrument. David Sogg's performance of Mozart's B flat major concerto, K. 191, showed that this neglect is unwarranted, while providing a welcome respite for a musical world saturated with concerti for piano or for violin. It is unfortunate that more people did not take advantage of this nearly unique opportunity to hear an excellent bassoonist in a solo context.
The concerto, like much of Mozart's music, was composed quickly and on commission. The composer adhered rigidly to the classical concerto form, and scored his work modestly. But already, at the age of 18, he had mastered the delicate orchestration, the ethereal grace and the inimitable turn of phrase that one associates with his later and more famous works. Thus endowed, he turned everything he touched to gold; even his 'minor' works are illuminated with his genius.
These qualities that make Mozart so universally appealing are also responsible for his difficulty to perform. Happily, though, David Sogg is an extraordinarily gifted musician. His tone is clear and pure, his technique marvelous. Few regard the bassoon as an exceptionally agile instrument, but Sogg demonstrated that it can be precisely that. The rapid passagework and the herioc leaps between the uppermost and lowermost registers were rendered with astounding lucidity. More importantly, his fine sense for the subtle lyricism of Mozart was obvious, especially in the second movement, and throughout the piece he allowed the music to express itself with such subtlety that it did not sound stale or trite. In short, his performance was a credit to his instrument and to the composer.
Perhaps due to the inspiration of the soloist, the orchestra seemed to be at its best in the Mozart; the playing was clean and usually understated. In the lyrical slow movement this clarity was especially evident. Here Peter Lurye managed the ensemble and the balance between the soloist and his orchestra successfully and the overall effect was quite enchanting. Unfortunately, Lurye did not always restrain his musicians sufficiently. They occasionally covered the sound of the bassoon, which with its low pitch and delicate tone was all too vulnerable to such attacks. Despite this serious problem, Sogg stole the show in the end, and had to return to the stage several times to acknowledge the enthusiastic and well-deserved applause.
The concert opened with a performance of Ravel's Ma Mere l'Oye (Mother Goose), which quite often succeeded in evoking the composer's refreshing fairy-tale images. 'Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant' benefitted from luminous solo passages by the flute and clarinet and conjured a sensuous picture of Sleeping Beauty; the plaintive and delicate waltz Ravel wrote for Beauty and the Beast received a skillful treatment from the upper woodwinds and contrabassoon. But dynamic imbalances proved frustrating here as in the concerto. Too often the less important lines were simply not sufficiently subordinated; exquisitely played solo passages in the woodwinds in 'Laideronetter,' and for the violin and viola in 'Le jardin ferrique,' were scarcely audible.
BUT IF PROBLEMS of imbalance were troublesome in Ravel, they were considerably more serious in the performance of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony which ended the program. The work offers a rare chance to hear the mature Beethoven in a congenial mood, and has a great deal of intrinsic charm; the composer showed good taste in preferring it to the more popular Seventh. But despite the clean and robust tone of the strings and some fine lyrical playing from the woodwinds, problems of balance so marred the performance that it can neither be called satisfying, nor even very charming. The overassertive brass, despite their lack of numbers, covered the woodwinds during much of the first movement; in the Finale they managed to drown out the strings as well, and their stridently reiterated tonics and dominants became extremely annoying.
The symphony suffered too from an alarming lack of ensemble and rhythm. Tutti passages were often poorly coordinated as well as poorly balanced; the winds did not often synchronize their lines with those of the strings or even among themselves, and the brass added imprecise timing to their list of sins. However, the conductor is meant to notice and correct such imperfections of balance and ensemble; thus, with him the responsibility must rest. It is extremely unfortunate that potentially first-rate performances of the Ravel and Beethoven works were spoiled by Lurye's carelessness regarding fundamentals. The persistent inattention to these elementary problems placed a severe strain on the patience of the listener and nullified a number of outstanding individual performances by the talented members of the Bach Society.