It’s not too often that you’ll hear the words Chopin and Bassoon in the same sentence, and it’s not too often you’ll think that the two have much in common. Until I heard the new album by the supremely talented Hungarian Bassoonist, Zsofia Stefan, I would have agreed with you; but not now.
In the case of this album I’m not happy to use the term ‘crossover’ because, until the very last track, this collection doesn’t try to mix unrelated genres. It does take the bassoon to places it hasn’t been before, but they are not so far away that it doesn’t feel totally at home – or is that because Zsofia makes us feel that way?
A staple woodwind instrument of the classical orchestra for over three hundred years, the bassoon has often been cast as the comic fool of the piece. The three and a half octave range and the sheer difficulty of mastering the nine feet of wooden tubing haven’t exactly endeared it to budding musicians. But we all know the sound – the opening to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the extended solo in Shostakovich Symphony no. 9 (Opus 70)? We’ve heard it played, but because, in its early days, it lacked the finesse of today’s instruments we’ve rarely heard it played on its own.
This new album, by Zsofia Stefan, Exploring Enchanted Gardens, makes a bold statement. Zsofia has set out to make her bassoon sound as many will not have heard it before and, bravely, to places where any weaknesses will be exposed. For an instrument which was largely ignored by the Romantic composers, she’s opened with two Chopin piano pieces; Nocturne Opus 9 no. 1, and Prelude 28, no. 12. Her smoothness of tone and subtle understanding of these two pianistic favourites makes them sound as if written for this very instrument – even when accompanied by the harp.
After the Chopin, we are treated to Borne’s Carmen Fantasy; originally written for flute (Borne was a flautist), the setting gives Stefan the perfect opportunity to show off her impeccable technique. The final set of brilliant variations are a masterclass. Bravo!
After this superb beginning, there is the feeling that the programme gets a little bogged down. Monteverdi’s beautiful lament (Lamento della Ninfa) played with four bassoons sounds, perhaps, a little slow and unwieldy, but the effect of the four instruments playing together was enthralling enough to keep me with it to the end. It may be at this point that we discover the expressive limitations of the bassoon; its sonorous resonance is unquestioned, but the range of volume doesn’t give players enough scope to express themselves as they might like.
Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ from the Four Seasons is, again, superbly played, but the brevity of the opening tracks makes us feel that we’re now in a concert rather than an exploration of the possibilities of the bassoon.
The slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and the Ciaccona by Tarquinio Merula take us back to where we were – two very different and exciting renditions of pieces written with something else in mind. The Merula (written in 1637) is fun; the track doesn’t make fun of the bassoon, but it shows us another side of the versatility of the instrument.
The return to Vivaldi, in the shape of the Sonata in B major, RV46 IV, which was written for the Cello is, again, a slight step backwards in the entertainment stakes. Once again this is a beautiful rendition of a serious work, but it doesn’t, in my mind, fit with the rest of the programme.
The return to Chopin with the beautiful Nocturne Opus 20 in C sharp minor give scope, for Stefan, to exploit the long and sonorous phrases of the master romantic. The penultimate track, another Chopin piano piece (Fantasie Impromptu Opus 66) is, once again, accompanied by the harp. If this piece sounds slightly incongruous for the bassoon, the final track is a complete surprise.
Beyonce’s ‘Flaws and all’ is a genuine shock. Not because it doesn’t work and that we aren’t given a fascinating version of this lesser known track from her second album (B’Day), but simply because it is on the album at all. At this point, the album becomes a ‘crossover’ album. I didn’t want it to be one. I wanted Zsofia to show me her talents in the safe little classical world that I exist in; I want to be assailed with the sumptuous sounds of the bassoon playing the music I love.
There is no doubt that Zsofia is an extremely talented bassoonist and that this album showcases her technical brilliance. We also hear how beautifully the instrument in her hands can lend itself to music we wouldn’t have imagined it could. I just wish the album could have continued as it had started (and nearly ended!).