Shades and Colours of the Bassoon

Beyond its role in the orchestra, you may not often think of the bassoon as a solo instrument. But it has lots to say. Izabela Musial, winner of the 2018 RPS Allianz Instrumentalist Prize, invites you on a musical journey, revealing all the wonders of her instrument...

Hello everyone! I'm excited to be sharing a playlist of my favourite bassoon pieces which I hope will give you a greater impression of the many unique shades and colours of my instrument. I've written a few words about each track, explaining why I think they're worth listening to, and why they're special to me.

First on the list, we have the 1st movement from Camille Saint-Saëns' Sonata for Bassoon and Piano, Op. 168. This is one of my favourite pieces written for bassoon, ever. It was composed in 1921, but the style of it is still strictly Romantic. It's one work I will never get bored of, and each time I perform it is such a joy! This recording is by Dutch bassoonist Bram Van Sambeek, one of the most outstanding bassoon players of our generation.

We all know Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was controversial when it was first performed. The reason why I chose it for my playlist is because this piece was actually written 8 years BEFORE the beautiful and romantic Saint-Saëns Sonata above! In the opening, you can hear how Stravinsky made the bassoon play in an unusually high register. The whole beginning is like an improvised cadenza, and even those familiar with the work may be surprised to know that Stravinsky marked in the part ad libitum, which means 'at one's pleasure'.

Stravinsky used the bassoon in different ways, which you'll hear in the next two tracks. One is the Lullaby from his ballet The Firebird. What I love about this piece is how calm the bassoon sounds here, yet somehow tense and intriguing at the same time. It’s one of those solos that we bassoonists are very proud to play. The second track is an Aria from his opera The Rake’s Progress. I have very nice memories of this one. When I was in the graduate orchestra Southbank Sinfonia, we worked on the Aria with professional players from the Royal Opera House, and performed the whole opera ourselves with British Youth Opera. I love the bassoon part in this: Stravinsky knows absolutely how to use the bassoon in a way that's very lyrical and cantabile.

Next, we have Benjamin Britten's Nocturne, his last orchestral song cycle. It has eight movements, each of them for orchestra, tenor, and, except for the first one, an obbligato instrument. The Kraken is the second movement and takes a text by poet Alfred Tennyson. I think this might be one of the most challenging excerpts in the bassoon's orchestral repertoire: Britten uses the entire range of the instrument and its dynamics, and it sounds amazing.

The following piece - Nocturne-danse - is very special to me. It was one of the pieces I performed in my final recital at the Royal College of Music and is written by French Eugene Bozza, who wrote many chamber pieces for bassoon and piano.

I think the bassoon can work very well as a solo instrument with orchestra. I love this particular recording of Richard Strauss' Duett-Concertino for Clarinet and Bassoon, which was released earlier this year. The bassoon part is performed by Julie Price, Principal Bassoon of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Orchestra, and the second movement - Andante - always makes me very emotional.

To show you historically how bassoons used to sound, I've added the 1st movement from Vivaldi’s Concerto in B-flat major, RV503. Vivaldi composed almost 40 bassoon concertos(!) and Sergio Azzolini, an Italian bassoonist has recorded all of them, playing a traditional instrument. It sounds totally different to the instruments we use nowadays, and what I love about Azzolini’s playing is his freedom and understanding of the music.

The bassoon has such a characteristic sound which composers have picked up on in movie scores - and here we have some examples. The first track comes from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by John Williams and is for contrabassoon and harp. The second is the leading melody from The Hateful Eight by Ennio Moriconne.

To conclude my playlist, I've chose two completely different pieces which demonstrate just how many shades and colours the bassoon can make. Earlier this year Bram van Sambeek released a CD called ORBI, which means the Oscillating Revenge of Background Instruments. It contains covers of popular songs by Pink Floyd and Metallica among others, with the band comprising bassoon, double bass, Hammond organs and drums. My two favourites are Hey You by Pink Floyd and Uprising by Muse.

Iza is one of several young artists the RPS is proud to be supporting as they establish their careers. We are especially grateful to Allianz for their help in supporting Iza. To find out more about her, and the range of opportunities we offer to talented instrumentalists, please click the links below.

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