Peter Whelan

The Ensemble Marsyas's bassonist talks about Zelenka

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Peter WhelanYour wind group Ensemble Marsyas formed in 2011, and you’ve just released your debut disc. How did the ensemble get started?
We met at the music conservatory in Basel when we were students. It was a great place for early music performance practice. There were some fantastic oboe and bassoon teachers there at the time, so that's how we met.

Why did you choose Zelenka's Sonatas for your first recording?
We have always been passionate about Zelenka. He was a composer of the greatest masterpieces for our instruments, and right from the beginning we found his music compelling. We then went on to do a competition in Bruges where we played Zelenka, and were fortunate enough to win the first prize. From there we decided to record the works.

Zelenka isn't a household name, so can you tell us a bit about him?
Zelenka is an amazing composer, but we don’t know very much about his life. We know he was born in what's the modern-day Czech Republic, and was consistently unlucky in securing good professional positions. We also know that he was very much admired by JS Bach and that he spent much of his life playing the violone in the court in Dresden. Other details are more mysterious. For instance, after his death, his music was kept strictly under lock and key in the Electress of Saxony's casket in the court, out of bounds to the public. But there have been no shortage of people trying to fill the gaps in his life, looking through his works for hidden meanings.

But even if his life story is mostly lost, we do still have his music: can you give us a flavour of it?
Well, he’s a Bohemian composer, which we hear throughout his music. And he writes in a lot of different styles. He’s au fait with different church styles at the time, and there’s a madcap element to his music as well as compelling, heart-on-sleeve emotionalism. Particularly in the second movement of the Fifth Sonata he writes in a very passionate style, with some Turkish influences – very chromatic, squashy harmonies.

It all sounds incredibly virtuosic. What’s it like to play?
It’s some of the most difficult music we have, and it's quite a challenge on the older instruments where we have fewer keys. It takes a few years of practice. But worthwhile in the end.

Can you pick out one or two highlights from the disc?
The third movement of the Fifth Sonata has an absolutely amazing moment for the bassoon. The piece starts in a very conventional way, but bit by bit it becomes more and more madcap and eventually falls off the rails. The bassoon has one of the most extraordinary solos from the top to the bottom of the instrument, a sort of bassoon breakdown. In the Sixth Sonata, the first movement is wonderfully calm and beautiful. I’d also recommend listening to the last movement of this Sonata (see audio clip, above). It starts with the conventional minuet, then falls to pieces, and there’s some incredibly zany and virtuosic writing for the wind players. 

The Ensemble Marsyas's Zelenka Sonatas disc on Linn Records is out now, and was reviewed in the November issue of BBC Music Magazine, where it was the Chamber Choice for the month.

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