Tell the old joke about a dead composer "de-composing" in his grave if you must, but some of them do just the opposite.
Gioacchino Rossini, for one, has a new bassoon concerto out.
Talk about unexpected. Especially from a man who, in addition to being long dead, retired from active composing at around 40 years old.
Rossini (1792-1868) sketched this concerto; however, scholars think that its dedicatee, the famed bassoonist Nazareno Gatti, finished it. Discovered in a library in Italy in the late 1990s, it's a rare find that has excited the bassoon community, including Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra principal bassoonist Nancy Goeres.
"To be learning a piece from this period for the first time is way off the charts," she says. "It is really exciting and very unusual."
According to Sergio Azzolini, an Italian bassoonist who found the manuscript and made an edition of it in 1998, the concerto was probably written around 1845 for Gatti to play at his final examination at a music school in Bologna, where the famed opera composer was teaching in the 1840s. Actually, it had long been held that Rossini wrote a concerto for Gatti, but it had never been found.
If Rossini only sketched this concerto out, that's actually par for the course for his non-operatic compositions: "The composer often left it to a musician friend ... to carry out such tasks," Azzolini wrote in the preface to the edition.
"Gatti was a famous bassoonist of the time," says Goeres. "Maybe he finished it, or he wrote the whole thing. There are many different scenarios, but it was written at the time."
If the attribution to Rossini isn't spurious, it would add a work by a past master to the limited bassoon concerto repertoire. "That is why this is such a big deal," says Goeres. "I am sure there are some obscure baroque bassoon concertos out there that haven't been found, but this is Rossini."
Goeres is among the first to perform the "Examination" concerto with a major American orchestra. "It has hardly been played at all," she said. "As the word gets out it will get played more." She herself first learned of the concerto when a colleague at the San Francisco Symphony told her about it. "My friend Steve Dibner [associate principal bassoonist there] called me up and said, 'This is so amazing, you have to play it.'"
The three-movement concerto "sounds like Rossini," Goeres says. Indeed, in many respects it is typical of the classical concerto and of Rossini's aesthetic. It begins with an expansive introduction in the reduced orchestra from which the bassoon dives to a very low note before continuing in concerto sonata form. The themes are gravid with notes, but an operatic lyricism is ever-present, especially in the second theme.
The middle movement is a tender melody floating above a sea of string- and wind-playing that climbs into a cadenza connecting it to the finale. That rondo is awash with runs for the bassoon echoed by broad strains for the orchestra. The main theme is a bouncy motif that eventually succumbs to the increased intensity of a Rossini crescendo.
But the piece also has atypical qualities. Foremost are the keys of the three movements: B-flat major, C minor and F major. It is far more typical for a symphony or concerto of the Romantic period to start and end in the same key, using a related key in between. Also, the solo part is uncharacteristically difficult. "There are tons of notes; the last movement is particularly wild," says Goeres. "This piece goes from the very lowest to the highest. There are even high D's in it, which is the highest note in the 'The Rite of Spring.' Endurance-wise it is extremely difficult. There's not much resting."
The technical virtuosity is especially impressive considering bassoons were constructed with fewer keys and less precision prior to 1850, roughly speaking.
"The bassoon has changed since [Gatti's] time," says Goeres. "I always wonder how these bassoonists played with fewer keys." She will play her modern bassoon for the performance, though she will ornament the lines in the manner of the performance practice of the period.
Ultimately, Goeres and other bassoon players are excited because they are always looking for a quality new concerto to add to the solo repertoire of Mozart, Vivaldi, Weber, Hummel and others. But they never guessed it might come from the past rather than from a contemporary composer. The piece is substantive enough that it probably would have made the canon had it been known earlier. Goeres specifically lauds the "beautiful slow movement" and says it is "well-written for the instrument."
Whether its pure Rossini or a half-and-half collaboration, the Concerto for Bassoon exists, and no one can take it away from the bassoonists now. They hope hearing it will cause the public to feel the same way. "It's a worthwhile piece that people will enjoy listening to," says Goeres.
The sole commercial recording of Rossini's Bassoon Concerto is performed by Azzolini and the Streicher-Akademie Bozen, conducted by Georg Egger (Arts 47634-2).
Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1750.
Featuring: Martin Haselbock, conductor; Nancy Goeres, bassoon.
Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
When: 8 tonight; 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $17-$69; 412-392-4900.