Published in ‘Classic CD’, September 1997

Instruments of the Orchestra:
The Bassoon

Daniel Smith is the world's most recorded bassoonist.

His discs include the only complete recordings of Vivaldi's 37 concertos and he is the only bassoonist to perform and record in both the jazz and classical fields.

He gave the US West Coast premiere of Gunther Schuller's Contrabassoon Concerto and premiered the Jazz Suite for Bassoon and Orchestra of Steve Gray.

He talks about the instrument and its greatest music.

Daniel in the jungle
His long term aim is to programme concerts featuring both classical and jazz.


What is the greatest bassoon writing and why?

There are lots of wonderful pieces but what is seriously under-rated is William Hurlstone's sonata which is an incredible piece, the creme de la creme. It is so idiomatic for the bassoon and there is a real dialogue with the piano. It is not a mere piano accompaniment. You can hear people saying "Ahh!" when they hear it. People love it.

You are the only person to have recorded all 37 of Vivaldi's bassoon concertos.

It took six years to complete the Vivaldi concertos and no-one else has done it. There were always problems along the way as you would expect with a massive project like this - the funding was a major one. We made the first three volumes with the English Chamber Orchestra but the others were done with the Zagreb Soloists in Croatia. When we did the ECO recordings we had 3 days to do six concertos. For Zagreb and the last volume, with seven rather than six concertos, we were told we had to do them in two days. I said: "What!! That is inhuman." So I flew to Zagreb with this seemingly insane undertaking of recording 21 different movements in two days. I don't think I slept the night before. But I got on stage in the beautiful big concert hall in Zagreb and drank nothing but strong black espresso. I was wired and I kept going all day long. I thought I was going to collapse. The next day I was sightseeing all day. All this was going on under the threat of the Bosnian war.

Were the recordings actually affected by the war?

The Zagreb Soloists said to me, and also on a BBC interview, that they could see the war coming and were terrified. On the day of our flight from London to Zagreb to make the sixth and final volume of the Vivaldi series, all flights were grounded, as the Serbs were starting to shell Zagreb. At the last minute, a cease fire was arranged with the UN and we were then able to fly the next day to Croatia and into Zagreb.

Cover CD
featured on the
September 1997
edition of ‘Classic CD’

How hard is the bassoon to play?

Very. The bassoon has bemused audiences and critics alike. It is an incredibly physical instrument, the fingerings are quite awkward in various registers, and it is demanding on stamina and breath control.

You are unique in being a classical bassoonist who then branched out into crossover and then jazz. Why jazz?

I have always thought the bassoon as being well suited to jazz. It is not easy, since the fingerings and technique involved are several times harder than on, for instance, a saxophone. But the husky sound is ideally suited to this idiom.

Which are the staples of the bassoon repertoire and why?

I would choose Vivaldi because of the sheer variety of melodies and emotions he achieves in the 37 concertos. The slow movements are incredibly beautiful and the fast outer movements are quite exciting to listen to, as well as very demanding on the player.

What are your favourite works?

Among several I would definitely choose the Hurlstone, which I have already mentioned. He died of consumption aged 30 in 1906 and it has been said that had he lived, he would have been one of the major English composers of the century.
(You can hear the piece on ASV CD DCA535)

What attracted you to the instrument?

It is very emotional - it has the best of the cello, of the human voice. I just love the sound.

Any hints for interpretation?

There was a tradition which said you must never use vibrato. If I didn't use even a little the music is dead. Play it beautifully, emotionally and with style.

Bassoon Workshop
The modern bassoon is made in three sections bundled together - hence the Italian for bassoon faggoto or English "faggot" meaning bundle of sticks. Three-and-a-half octaves in range, the bassoon sounds like "dark red velvet black". Early bassoons had only a few keys and were difficult to play.

Bassoon works: six of the best
(as selected by Classic CD)

1 Mozart Concerto in Bb major
The 1960 version by Gwydion Brooke still commands attention with electric and stylish playing and a bold interpretation.
(Archiv 410 500-2)

2 Vivaldi concertos
Vivaldi's 37 concertos show just how vocal the bassoon can be and the variety of writing is astonishing.
(Complete on ASV)

3 Zeienka trio sonatas
Grandly scaled with remarkable harmonic twists and bold instrumentation, these elevate the bassoon from continuo to solo status.
(Archiv 423 937-2)

4 Poulenc chamber works
This sophisticated trio and sextet draw heavily on technical and emotional reserves.
(Decca 421 581-2)

5 Hurlstone Sonata in F major
Possibly the greatest British bassoon writing.
(ASV CD DCA 535)

6 Best bassoon orchestral writing:
Mozart piano concertos and late symphonies, Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale, Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade

Some outstanding bassoon players:

Archie Camden (1888-1979) A great pioneer who did much to popularise the instrument. When he played the first notes of the Rite Of Spring, it was astonishing. Every player can manage that now but at the time it was like the four-minute mile. He was the first to record the Mozart concerto.

William Waterhouse (b1931) is another excelIent British player who also popularised the very useful strap which supports the bassoon that the player sits on!

Milan Turkovic has recorded a lot for DG and is a brilliant player with a clear technique.

Maurice Allard plays the French bassoon which has a very different sound from the German model heard in Britain, like a saxophone.

Klaus Thunemann has a very personal style. He makes the instrument sing and come alive.





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