Mozart Bassoon Concerto in B-flat, K. 191

performed by Stepan Turnovsky and the Vienna Mozart Academy under Johannes Wildner, or below, likely Aligi Voltan and the Orchestra del Teatro Olimpico di Vicenza under G.B. Rigon

(cover image by Ales Krivec)

Name another bassoon concerto.

I’m sure you can (maybe), but this is far and away the most famous. It was written in 1774, and although we no longer have the manuscript score, apparently we have the exact date on which it was completed, on June 4 of that year.

Mozart was a mere 18 years old, but if you’re at all familiar with his work or career, you’ll know that the 18-year-old Mozart was already quite accomplished, as evidenced by the generous volume of serenades and divertimenti we’ve been discussing lately. We’re finally done with those for now (I think), and are moving on to other forms.

This work was also the first of his concertos for wind instruments (which would later include works for flute, oboe, clarinet, and horn), and it is suspected that this work was commissioned by one amateur (but apparently very talented bassoonist) Thaddäus Freiherr von Dürnitz, the same guy for whom was written (and who did not pay for) Mozart’s D major piano sonata, K. 284, but there’s apparently very little information to support this claim. I do feel, and granted, I’m not a historian, or a musician, much less a music historian, that it seems it would make more sense that the composer at the very least had a specific performer in mind, as was the case with the horn concertos, as I’m almost certain Wolfie couldn’t play the bassoon, but then again, who knows?

The piece is, as you would expect, in three movements, and has a duration of a little over a quarter of an hour.

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante ma Adagio
  3. Rondo: tempo di menuetto

The piano, cello and violin are obviously the most common solo instruments for concertos, and after that, my guess for the next most common would be the horn. As we discussed years ago with the horn series, you may also not think of the bassoon as a terribly exciting or virtuosic, expressive instrument, but it may well be my favorite in the entire orchestra. I love it. Like the clarinet, it has such distinct characteristics and timbres across its range, from the low rumble of the lowest register through to the soaring, delicate, oboe-like tone of the highest notes, and this concerto shows you that the instrument is indeed very capable of expression.

You may not know much about bassoon concertos, but we hear many of the same things in this work that we hear in the concertos for more commonly featured instruments, most notably an orchestral introduction to a sonata-form movement, a cadenza (showy solo passage) somewhere, that kind of thing. The first movement allegro begins with the orchestra, and again, the soloist enters exactly when you may anticipate. The orchestral introduction, especially compared with the smaller ‘entertainment’ style background music we’ve been discussing is luscious and vibrant, with oboes, horns and a full compliment of strings.

I don’t want to focus too much on the qualities of the bassoon rather than this composition itself, but the latter certainly enhances the former. There’s not another instrument that could be given this role and have anywhere near the intended effect. It’s lyrical but crisply clear, emphasizing the sweet tenor voice of the bassoon and the clean articulation of which the instrument is capable. Even in its heavy lower register, the writing for the instrument still conveys a lightness and agility rather than the cumbersome weight that the physical image of the instrument conveys. It’s just a feel-good, sunshiny first movement, with the typical but still marvelously effective minor-mode shadow that rolls in ever so briefly for the development. Wait for that cadenza.

The second movement, only seconds shorter than the first in Turnovsky’s performance, is also a sonata movement, but without development. For the broad, lyrical nature of this first theme, you could almost think of it being played by a horn. It sings that beautifully, that warmly, and while the first movement may have seemed playful, even comical, especially to someone who knows the instrument as the grandfather from Peter and the Wolf, you may be inclined to think that it would come up short in a soft, delicate setting. Nope. It’s just as delicate and wonderful as any other. Listen for its lowest register. The acrobatics here are kind of subtle, but there are some real jumps in the writing.

The finale is subtle, not splashy or too showy, but instead continues the same sort of effortless, joyful pleasantness we’ve had throughout. This rondo is the shortest of the three movements, and ends very unassumingly. There are no fireworks, no big grand finish, but it’s so pristine.

What’s heartbreaking, maybe, is that the people who know this kind of stuff claim, apparently, that Mozart wrote a total of five bassoon concertos, but this (the first) is the only that survives. Before I got familiar with this work, a Mozart bassoon concerto would not be at the top of my list for works I’d like to be discovered in some chest somewhere, but man, I’d love to have four more if they come anywhere close to the splendor this little piece has. I’m also just such a sucker for the bassoon.

And really, if any composer could convince you that an instrument besides the violin, cello or piano deserves a concerto or five of its own, wouldn’t it be Mozart? I hope you feel that way, because we’re going to be seeing a few more from him next week. In the coming days, though, we’ll drop in on his symphonies that are contemporaries of this work, so stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for listening.

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