Antonio Vivaldi: Bassoon Concerto in E minor
Antonio Vivaldi composed a vast amount of concertos for a range of different instruments. No less than 230 of those are for violin, with the second most popular concerto soloist being the bassoon for Vivaldi. Out of the 39 bassoon concertos that Vivaldi composed, two of which remain incomplete. At the time that Vivaldi was composing these concertos for the bassoon he was working in Venice, where the bassoon had never been used as a solo instrument.
The predecessor of the bassoon, the dulcian, was swiftly going out of fashion in the 1600s, which makes it even more interesting that Vivaldi chose to go down this route. The more bassoon started to be developed in Paris in the 1660-70s and by 1680 had gained much popularity over Europe. However, it wasn’t until much later that it reached Venice. The bassoon at this point was still not as versatile as we know the modern bassoon is, which makes Vivaldi’s concertos even more challenging.
It’s estimated that all 39 concertos were composed between 1728-1737. Vivaldi’s understanding of the bassoon is clear throughout all the concertos, with his expression and technical demand for the soloists setting a high benchmark for many years to come.
Set into three contrasting movements, the E minor concerto has remained a staple in bassoon concerto repertory.
Movement I – Allegro poco
The driving opening from the strings and continuo set the scene for when the soloist enters. Vivaldi pushes the bassoon to its limits technically in this movement, with rapid fingerings and high stamina required to keep up with the ensemble. The fast solo passages are accentuated largely by the continuo, who enables the bassoon to float over the top of the ensemble. The big intervallic leaps highlights the virtuosity of the piece as well as keeping the intensity high.
Vivaldi passes the melody around between the strings and the bassoon as the soloist develops the principal themes. On paper one might believe that the solo part is intended for a stringed instrument, however this devilish solo part set its sights on a different kind of instrument. The woody timbre of the bassoon shines through, adding an intriguing texture combination to the ensemble sound. After a repeat of the opening material the first movement concludes back in the home key of E minor.
Movement II – Andante
Typical of a Baroque concerto, the second movement showcases the soloists lyrical side. The slow tempo and the long legato lines from both the opening ensemble introduction and the bassoon shows a very different character from the first movement. Often seen as a comical instrument, the bassoon is shown in a much more serious light in this movement. This movement also offers room for the soloist to freely decorate and embellish the solo. The idea of improvisation in this movement plays with Vivaldi’s aim to make the bassoon sound romantic and not awkward to play. The long lyrical lines achieve this, creating a wonderfully solemn middle movement.
Movement III – Allegro
Back at a quick tempo, the thrilling finale movement once again showcases the bassoons dexterity as a solo instrument. The fiendish arpeggios, scales and big leaps are amongst only some of the challenging aspects of this movement. The interplay between the soloist and the ensemble is exciting, with the communication between the two parties radiating as the bassoon flies over the much sparser string accompaniments. The strings repeat the opening theme once more before finishing back in the home key.
Antonio Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto in E minor remains one of his most popular concertos for the instrument. The soloist’s part is a real challenge for any bassoonist, from the fast fingerings to the sheer stamina required, this concerto celebrates all the best aspects of the bassoon.