One has only to listen to the poignant bassoon countermelodies in some of Mozart’s operas–the plangent descending line in the fourth measure of Pamina’s aria “Ach! Ich fühl’s” from The Magic Flute is a good example–to get a sense of how important the instrument was in the composer’s scheme of emotional characterizations. Clearly the bassoon inspired Mozart, who so often used it to underscore heartache or despair.

Alas, the only Bassoon Concerto he wrote, K. 191, is both early (1774) and inferior, say the experts. “But it’s Mozart,” says Michael Sweeney, principal bassoonist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, “so every bassoonist has to play it. It’s on every audition, and if that’s not a sure-fire way for a piece to get stale, nothing is!”

No wonder that when Sweeney decided to record K. 191 he wanted a fresh perspective – no small matter for a piece that has been recorded more than 90 times.

How does one muster enthusiasm for a tired old warhorse that was never a champion in the first place? Sweeney thought he could do it by proving, at least to himself, that the concerto was a better work than people gave it credit for. And he suspected that some of its inadequacies were editorial, since all currently available editions can be traced to a single source, an edition prepared by the publisher J. A. André in 1805 without the benefit of an autograph manuscript (which he apparently mislaid).

Indeed, when Sweeney compared André’s score with the two official scholarly editions of Mozart’s complete works he found many inconsistencies, including wrong notes and missing or misplaced dynamic and articulation markings (more than 60 in the Neue Mozart Ausgabe alone) that confirmed sloppy, indifferent editing.

Creating a transparent urtext edition, one where all editorial decisions were obvious, was his next task. “I’d argue my text before any tribunal of musicologists,” says Sweeney, who hopes to publish his edition once he completes the critical notes.

There are major differences: One is the overlap of fortes in some parts with pianos in others, which allows the solo bassoon to emerge more organically from the orchestra in several instances. Another is the way the amended articulations now emphasize individual motives.

But Sweeney didn’t stop with an urtext. Like many bassoonists before him, he also made his own performing edition.

“I wanted a more valuable document than the standard ego edition, though,” he says. Therefore, while the second edition does not attempt to be “authentic,” it does represent a historically informed reconstruction of a “possible” performance of the piece during Mozart’s lifetime. In it Sweeney incorporates performance traditions he knows were valid for other Mozart concertos, even if they weren’t specified for K. 191.

For instance, the Bassoon Concerto is the first of the concertos to specify muted strings in its slow movement. Since [nearly] all subsequent concertos orchestrate such movements with flutes rather than the oboes scored in K. 191, Sweeney thought it plausible that Mozart would have condoned replacing oboes with flutes there too, and it’s one of his most audible (and felicitous) editorial emendations.

Elsewhere Sweeney has incorporated embellishments taken from other Mozart sources, brought out the composer’s rhetorical play with the standard symmetrical phrasing of a minuet, and experimented with a one-to-a-part accompaniment in the solo passages. In so doing, he has brought himself closer to many of the concerns of the period performance movement. And he has undeniably achieved his original aim of a “fresh perspective” on the piece. Hear it yourself on his CD, Mozart and Well Beyond, on the Aficondo label, featuring the Seiler Strings.


Opus magazine, Vol. 28.1, Spring 2005