There is a long tradition for orchestras to offer their principals the occasional opportunity to shine as soloists. It is also a means for them to attract the best young talent for their roster. The WDR Sinfonieorchester made good on that pledge by inviting Mathis Kaspar Stier to perform André Jolivet’s rarely heard Bassoon Concerto, scored for string orchestra with harp and piano. Representative of the composer’s post-World War 2 shift away from atonality, with a Baroque structure alternating slow and fast sections and frequent jazz inflexions (especially in the piano lines), the score is a serious challenge for a bassoonist’s technical prowess. From his initial lament in the Recitativo to the frenzied, dervish-like whirls abruptly culminating in a D major fortississimo in the Finale, Stier demonstrated not only his outstanding virtuosity, but also an ability to shape elegant melodic contours. He played con brio the haunting, syncopated rhythms in the Allegro gioviale and persuasively rendered the plaintive, saxophone-evoking melodies in the Largo cantabile. Manfred Honeck, the evening’s conductor, made sure that the bassoon was never drowned in the ensemble’s accompaniment, underlining the score’s protean character with its charming violin and harp solos.

Mathis Kaspar Stier plays Jolivet's Bassoon Concerto
© WDR Symphony Orchestra

Honeck, long-time Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, was a last-minute replacement for the initially announced Joana Mallwitz. He left the programme mostly intact, only replacing the introductory work, Debussy’s Prelude à l'après-midi d'un faune, with Dvořák’s Cigánské melodie (Gipsy Songs). Where the former would have shared with Jolivet’s work a particular French air, the transcription of the latter employed the same type of wind-less orchestral scoring as the bassoon concerto. Originally conceived for tenor and piano, Dvořák’s cycle praises the freedoms of nomadic life where – as stated in the last song’s lyrics – given a cage to live in, made of pure gold, the Gypsy would exchange it for the freedom of a nest of thorns”. In the orchestral arrangement by Manfred Honeck and Tomáš Ille, the vocal lines were taken over by the violins, cellos or, in the case of the most famous of the seven Lieder – Songs my mother taught me – by concertmaster, Natalie Chee. The transcription, with a strings-and-harp discourse punctuated by drum interjections, preserved the idyllic atmosphere of the original, each of the sections evoking love, sorrow, longing, or the open wilderness. Honeck and the WDR Symphony underlined the distinctive rhythms (more Slovak and Czech than typically Romani) and the carefree vitality that permeates this music.

Manfred Honeck conducts the WDR Symphony Orchestra
© WDR Symphony Orchestra

Expressing a certain joie de vivre was also the main characteristic of Friday evening’s rendition of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. Members of the ensemble were actually stomping their feet during the “Merry gathering of country folk” central Scherzo like veritable 1800 “Landleute”! From the first bars of the “Awakening of cheerful feelings...” to the shepherds’ thanksgiving after the storm, the entire performance was marked by an irresistible sense of urgency. The numerous transitional passages were smoothly executed, and the wind players’ solo interventions were always impeccable. A strong connection between conductor and the WDR musicians was as clearly palpable here as it was during the entire performance.

This performance was reviewed from the WDR live video stream