House Music: Italian Summer

Rossini (attrib.)
Bassoon Concerto
Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op.6
String Quartet in E minor (arr. for string orchestra)
Il signor Bruschino – Overture

Andrea de Flammineis (bassoon)

Vasko Vassilev (violin)

Chamber Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 26 June, 2005
Venue: Floral Hall, Royal Opera House, London

The publicity for this – one of the Royal Opera’s charming Sunday matinee concerts – gave the impression that it would present the UK première of Rossini’s Bassoon Concerto. So you can imagine my disappointment that the rather brief programme note, acknowledging the help of the Rossini Foundation in Pesaro, dismissed the concerto as highly unlikely to have been by Rossini (because the style and the handwriting were not his), despite the cover of the extant copy bearing his name.

Thankfully Antonio Pappano set our collective minds at rest. Referring to the negative aspect of the note, he made an impromptu announcement before bassoonist Andrea de Flammineis made his entry, in defence of the work. Whether by Rossini or not, he said he found it a charming work. And so it proved.

The note hadn’t even gone to the trouble of announcing how many movements. As it happens, it’s in the usual three (Allegro – Largo – Rondo allegretto), with the dramatic slow movement, where the bassoon takes an almost-vocal line, separating the faster flanking ones. There are certainly some Rossini-esque chugging patterns in the first movement, building like the overtures with repetitive figures. The solo writing is mellifluous, favouring the upper range of the instrument, with little of the lower register (of which you might have thought the jovial Rossini might have made more) and Andrea de Flammineis, principal bassoonist of the Royal Opera House, was more than equal to the task, producing a very pleasing, even tone, burnished, subtle and effortlessly musical.

But I wanted to know more, and a quick web search provides more detail about the work (and indeed alerting a recording: Arts-476342). Building on from what the ROH programme told us about the collection of manuscripts made by (priest) Giuseppi Gregiati, which is now to be found in Ostiglia library, near Mantua, the concerto is seemingly dated to between 1842 and 1845, which is when Rossini was advisor to Bologna’s Music School. At the time one of the pupils was a bassoonist called Nazzareno Gatti and half-a-century later (1893) one of his obituaries mentions that Rossini wrote him a concerto.

The fact that Rossini’s handwriting is not seen in the manuscript has led to others to suppose that it was a collaborative effort between Rossini, Gatti and his teacher Dominico Liverani, and that’s about as far as we’re ever likely to get, especially as the Fondazione Rossini is so clear-cut in its dismissal. But I’m with Pappano and Flammineis: it is a charming work and certainly ideal for a sunny afternoon in the Floral Hall.

With the sun out there was a distinctive shadow-pattern of the Hall’s metal framework on the acoustic boards behind the chamber orchestra, which slowly moved round as the sun changed position: a real-life ‘video’ affect à la Jane and Louise Wilson who designed the Music Theatre Wales/ROH co-production of Tippett’s “The Knot Garden”, recently in the Linbury and still on tour.

By the time Vasko Vassilev took the soloist’s stand for the Paganini, the sun was far enough round for the northern balustrade of the House to start blackening the acoustic boards, perhaps a visible recognition of the oft-quoted devilish nature of both Paganini the man and his music.

While Vassilev dug into the part with commendable and extraordinary virtuosity I was left rather disheartened at the work: displays of virtuosity with little musical heart leave me cold, or as cold as I could get in the warmth of the Floral Hall (one elderly lady had to be carried out during the first movement having fainted). Vassilev, with his jet-black hair, brooding eyebrows and piercing dark eyes, certainly fitted the description of Paganini’s playing, but virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake failed to pass the test in this case.

After the interval, the work that gave the impetus to the whole concert, Verdi’s String Quartet, was given in the composer-sanctioned string orchestra version (presumably the double bass judiciously echoing the cello part). Pappano had told us he had fallen in love with this little-known work when he had first heard it, and it seemed the ideal starting point from which to build an orchestral programme tied into the forthcoming “Otello” revival (with the concerto aspect of the programme following from the Italians’ love of a singing line).

Its performance in the Floral Hall was entirely apposite – the private première had taken place in a hotel foyer, to an unwitting public. It is more than salon music, though, and I was instantly reminded of the sort of string-based intermezzi used by Mascagni and Puccini, but rarely Verdi, that could have come straight from an opera. Deliciously moulded by Pappano, this restored the genial mood established with the bassoon concerto.

To end was echt-Rossini, building on an earlier D major overture, to preface one of his typical comedies, “Il signor Bruschino”, notable particularly for the second violins starring role of tapping their stands with the wood of the bow. With more fizz and fun than in the company’s recent production of “Il Turco in Italia” this brought the concert to a rousing end.

Anthony Burton had the right idea (he was sitting two rows in front of me) and applauded with his hand tapping on the seat in front; the rest of us brought Pappano back to the stage in the usual manner.

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