It's likely that Mozart never actually heard his Clarinet Concerto performed. His friend Anton Stadler gave the première in Prague in October 1791, less than two months before the composer’s early death. That fate, happily, has not been shared by Michael Gordon, who has heard Peter Whelan perform his new bassoon concerto Observations on Air four times this week, culminating in this London performance. The OAE paired it with Mozart's classic under the title 'Winds of Change', although the new concerto in many ways draws its inspiration from the Age of Enlightenment itself.

Peter Whelan © Martin Usborne
Peter Whelan
© Martin Usborne

Gordon's concerto pays homage to Joseph Priestley, Enlightenment scientist whose treatise Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air lends the work its title. The composer describes the bassoon as the lead conversationalist in coffee house gatherings of “Honest Whigs”, including the likes of Benjamin Franklin, imparting a sense of discovery and excitement.

If anything, the work felt more related to the baroque, in particular to Vivaldi, who knew a thing or two about writing for the bassoon (39 concertos and counting). It begins with double basses, then cellos, repeated short motif figures, then rising up the chain to violas and violins, while the bassoon airily sings over them in its tenor register, often in falling phrases. The movement culminates in virtuosic rasping, echoed by oboes, and a long trill. The eerie nocturnal feel of the slow movement evoked the spirit of Vivaldi “La notte”, the strings indulging in ghostly glissandos over which the bassoon gingerly treads. It wasn't until the third movement that the bassoon's more familiar guise – court jester – appeared, Whelan revelling in a dancing theme against pizzicato accompaniment. Director Matthew Truscott beat time with his bow as horns (deliberately) chimed fractionally behind Whelan's theme, the OAE finding its groove as the bassoon engages in a dialogue between its different registers. An engaging work, persuasively played. A lovely touch saw the OAE's bassoonists (redundant in this piece) present bouquets to soloist and composer. 

The rest of the concert gave us the chance to hear Mozart from three stages of his career. It was in London (Soho and Chelsea) that Mozart wrote his earliest symphony to survive. Modelled on the symphonies of J.C.Bach (the London Bach), his Symphony no. 1 in E flat major received a vivacious performance, horns braying exuberantly in the outer movements. No. 33 in B flat major was written in 1779, Mozart in his middle period drawing on influences he'd heard in Mannheim and Paris. Truscott directed a reading on the leisurely side, afflicted by some sour moments of oboe tuning. The Allegro assai finale, though, went at an exhilarating lick though, double bass players Chi-chi Nwanoku and Cecelia Bruggemeyer exchanging delighted grins.

The final work in the programme was the Clarinet Concerto in A major, played on the basset clarinet by the OAE's principal, Antony Pay. He must have performed it hundreds of times over the decades, yet there was never any sense that its charm palls. Time, however, can be unkind to nimble fingers and some passagework is now not so fluent. A dry upper register was not helped by a few reed blemishes, although there was plenty of cheeky wit down in the chalumeau. The Adagio, although taken briskly, retained its sense of beauty. The winds of change may blow, but K622's status as late masterpiece remains unshakeable.