Published in ‘CD Review’ November 1991


Daniel Smith:

Of all the many recent recording projects dedicated to unearthing and collecting together an area of a composer's output, there was one which particularly caught my eye - Daniel Smith's six volume ASV recordings of Vivaldi's complete 37 bassoon concertos. ( see also this month's Classical Reviews). When I met Daniel at his London home I began by asking him whether, having recorded the complete cycle, he felt there was any justification in the old quip that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto six hundred times.

"No, I don't think that's remotely fair. Along the way I have performed many of these concertos with orchestras both in public and in the recording studio. I've come across some pretty hard-nosed musicians who have been in the business many years - players, conductors and people who prefer to just listen, and nearly all of them were won over by the quality of Vivaldi's inspiration.

"When I was recording and performing concerts with the Zagreb Soloists, one could see the players' faces light up as they read the music for the first time. They would exclaim 'this is fantastic' or 'how wonderful' as they were rehearsing! Also a friend of mine (a conductor in Baltimore, USA) who had made it very clear that he'd never been very keen on Vivaldi- 'Sewing machine music', as he would call it - did some concertos with me both in public and also on national radio, after which he simply couldn't get enough of them!

"For me personally, everything is so very distinctive, and the character of each movement is radically different; it's amazing what Vivaldi was able to do within such an apparently limited structural framework. The concertos are, however, very difficult, and don't let anyone say otherwise! Just when you think you have got over all the problems there's always a new passage waiting around the corner to trip you up. However as a good jazz player would point out, you have to work your way through all the technical problems to reach a point where you are almost on 'automatic pilot'. The worry concerning certain passages doesn't go away, you simply find (usually) that the fingers will take over and get you through!

"For example, in RV 478, there is a bit in the third movement where the bassoon double-tongues very fast on a downward scale. When we had finished this particular take at the recording session on-stage at Zagreb's Lisinski Palace, the producer asked me to take a break and come and listen to it. He played this run over the speakers and I was simply astounded - 'I played that?'. It sounded like something at the wrong or double speed, but I was in fact being faithful to Vivaldi's intentions and I believe I captured the right spirit.

"There are a number of other problems here in regard to these concertos. Number one - how could anyone have played that music on a primitive bassoon? When you see and play those old Baroque bassoons with few metal keys, just the basic shape with a minimum of rods and keys, I really can't imagine how all those special effects were achieved. Secondly - who in the world did he write them for and why did he write so many bassoon concertos? He performed much of this music in Venice at 'La Pieta' a school for orphaned girls where he was employed to teach-these young girls were the members of the orchestra and one of them no doubt was the bassoon soloist and perhaps inspiration for this music! But nobody really knows. If somebody wanted a subject for a University thesis, they could spend a lot of time trying to research this one!

"Thirdly, those other movement tempi! Just exactly how fast would Vivaldi have taken these at that time? The first two volumes of the bassoon concertos which I recorded with the English Chamber Orchestra contain pieces that I hand-picked to start the series - no one had ever recorded them before. I may have had a rough idea in my head of the tempi, but in the event, we had to feel our way until things fell coherently into place. There simply was no prototype on which to base our assumptions!

"By the time we got to final volumes, things were getting a little easier, but the usual studio pressures remained. I am sure that most people (and many musicians) are not aware of the kinds of pressures we artists regularly record under. We taped the final volume of seven concertos in just two days- four complete concertos one day and three the next, starting at 10AM and going until seven or eight at night. You can imagine the sheer energy and stamina required just to keep going - black coffee to keep you awake because you have to record things over and over again and all the while thinking and listening so acutely. Then a critic will come along later and make a big fuss about some demisemiquaver in measure 47 not being quite perfectly articulated!

"The pressure on the producer was every bit as great, because he was at the helm down in the control booth with the full knowledge that he had to get all the music in the 'can' come what may, because after that everyone inevitably had somewhere else to go! Recording in this way also has its advantages, I guess, because there's not a lot of time to fix problems, you've got to get it right the first or second times, which certainly helps the spontaneity!"

- J H





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