Sunday 21 October 2018

Classic talk: The strange tale of a long-lost 'rondo'

Elegant: Rossinni wrote a concerto for the basson
Elegant: Rossinni wrote a concerto for the basson

George Hamilton

Whenever you see the description "Rondo" attached to a piece of music, you know you're in for a treat. This simple form, where the opening theme returns, a bit like a chorus to book-end contrasting sections, started life in 17th-century France, was picked up by Bach, and developed by Mozart into the kind of vibrant, lively, melodic movement that always goes down so well.

A development of the ritornello, which is Italian for "refrain", the rondo is typically characterised as being ABABA, or even ABACA in form, where "A" is the principal theme, and "B" and "C" are the segments in between.

Typically, you'll find a rondo as the final movement of a concerto or a sonata, upbeat and lively, concluding the piece on a positive note after a slower central passage.

It was a rondo that brought me to the bassoon the other day, a piece that got me thinking, for it came from a concerto with the name Rossini attached.

Now Gioachino Rossini was nothing if not prolific but it was to the operatic arena that he devoted most of his attention - he wrote 39 in all. There were some songs and sonatas, too, but a concerto? And a concerto for bassoon at that.

The bassoon, the orchestral joker in the pack - the one that's capable of sounds more flatulent than musical, the one that represents the elderly granddad in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.

Though the repertoire for bassoon solo is pretty restricted, Rossini wouldn't have been the only composer to realise the melodic potential of the lowest pitched woodwind.

Mozart produced a beautifully elegant concerto. Before him, Vivaldi knocked off as many as Rossini wrote operas. There's a gorgeous sonata by Saint-Saëns and a Romance by Elgar.

A little-known Italian composer by the name of Luigi Gatti, who got the job of director of music in Salzburg ahead of Mozart's father Leopold, also has a bassoon concerto to his credit.

But the first time that anyone had heard of one by Rossini came years later when an Italian bassoonist by the name of Nazzareno Gatti -apparently no relation to Luigi - passed away.

In his obituary, it was noted that Rossini had composed a bassoon concerto for him, most likely for his final practical examination at the conservatory in Bologna back in the 1840s.

Rossini, who'd made his name and enjoyed his greatest success in Paris, had returned to his native Italy in his 40s and was teaching in Bologna when Gatti was there.

But it was generally assumed that the 20-odd years back in Italy had been a fallow period for Rossini. He was well-off by then, and his health wasn't the best.

When Nazzareno Gatti died, the manuscript was long lost, but it turned up again in the 1990s, and another Italian bassoonist, Sergio Azzolini, published it and made the first commercial recording.

There's no indication that it was actually the work of Rossini - there are parts that could be pure Rossini, others less so. The fact that it's heavily covered in notes and amendments suggests it may be the work of several hands. Whatever, it's a superb example of late Romantic music.

It's one of four concertos featured - and the rondo in question, Rossini's or not, fairly glistens - on a CD by a young Scottish bassoonist, Karen Geoghegan, on Chandos (CHAN 10613).

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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