ARTICLES (Gramophone)
Published in ‘Gramophone’ December1991


An exchange with John Duarte

The level of public awareness of the bassoon tends, like the instrument itself, to be 'low register', a situation that the American virtuoso Daniel Smith aims to change. "If it were better known, I feel that people would find it attractive, exciting and beautiful. After recitals, people often say to me, "I never knew the bassoon could do that, it's like hearing the human voice". Smith came to the bassoon comparatively late in life, in his mid-twenties. "I already had a degree on flute and played all the woodwinds, saxophone, clarinet, oboe. But I wanted to do something really exceptionally well - how many skills can you maintain at that level? The bassoon was a real challenge and you have multiple problems to overcome". The bassoon both looks like and is a difficult instrument. Having assembled his instrument, an operation suggesting that a certificate in pipe-fitting might be advantageous, he demonstrated some of those problems. "Instead of using the fingers in sequence in the upper register, you have to rearrange them, including thumbs and pinkies, and from note to note. The left hand thumb has the choice of nine or ten keys and in the upper register it may have to hit three of them simultaneously, with the fingers being rearranged on the other side".

The public might have been much more aware of the bassoon if others had followed Vivaldi's example: 37 completed concertos of high quality, of which many remain to be recorded. This month sees the release of yet another of a planned set of six CDs, the first integral recording of these works. "The 12 concertos on the first two discs with the English Chamber Orchestra were all first recordings. Integral recordings become archival, interesting to universities and libraries. But for me it's beyond practicalities like sales: I love the music-I don't see how you can't like it!" Since it is a large-scale, 'archival' project, why not go the whole hog and use a Baroque bassoon? "It's much more difficult to play and to play in tune, and the concertos are difficult anyway. If they had access to a modern instrument, I'm sure the players of those times would have used it because of all the improvements. They're both nice - why does it have to be at the expense of the other?" Will the scores be embellished or as written? "I was reluctant to plunge into embellishment right away - I'm not that much of a scholar, so I backed off and decided to be on safer ground doing them as printed, as many others have done over the years. But I'm rethinking this position and I might decide later to go that route. Right now, I am trying to make the emotional message come through".

Embellishment, though not necessarily 'authentic', should come naturally to Smith, who began his musical life in jazz, dance, and other 'light-musical' ensembles (we spent some time discussing jazz of earlier decades and he agrees that the bassoon would be well-suited to the blues) 'Bassoon Bon-Bons', the crossover recording he made recently with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra focuses on arrangements of pieces by Bach, Debussy, Kreisler et al. He is however, well equipped to do justice to a suite that Claude Bolling has expressed interest in writing for him. Whatever he may play, his belief that "anything that's played well, with a lot of feeling and sincere effort behind it, has it's merits" will help Daniel Smith communicate to a wider public the message that "bassoon is beautiful".

- John Duarte






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