Bassoon Concerto for bassoon and chamber orchestra, 1985, 20'
solo bassoon; fl, 2 cl, strings: 18.104.22.168 (preferably, but at maximum doubled)
Performers: Krzysztof Fiedukiewicz - bassoon, National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jerzy Maksymiuk - conductor; Polish Radio SA 2008
The Bassoon Concerto was commissioned by the American bassoonist Robert Thompson, though its content is closely associated with Panufnik’s homeland. Shortly before the composer began working on the concerto, the public in the whole world was shocked by the news of the martyrdom of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko. The news shocked Panufnik so much that he decided to dedicate the Bassoon Concerto, on which he was working at the time, to the memory of Father Jerzy.
As a result, the Bassoon Concerto is among the most profoundly programmatic pieces in Panufnik’s oeuvre. The five-movement composition illustrates, as it were, the life and death of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko. A brief Prologo is followed by Recitativo I (performed by the bassoon accompanied by three woodwind instruments), which may resemble ‘the priest’s humble prayer to the Virgin Mary’. Next comes Recitativo II, which illustrates the priest’s encounter with representatives of the secret police, and brutal interrogations, ‘before his tortured body was thrown into the reservoir by the Vistula river’. The next movement, which is the main part of the work, Aria, is a kind of elegy, the long melodic line of which brings to mind the spirit of Polish folk melodies. The whole concerto ends with a brief, quiet epilogue, which is most likely an expression of belief in a spiritual victory of the martyred priest.
Composing the Bassoon Concerto, Panufnik not only intended to include in it allusions to the life and death of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko; another considerable challenge for him was the very fact of writing for the bassoon – an instrument usually regarded as the ‘clown’ of the orchestra owing to its comic potential. However, the composer decided to challenge this stereotype and entrusted the bassoon with a very expressive, almost dramatic part, revealing the singing potential of this instrument (primarily in the Aria). The soloist admitted in an interview that he treated Panufnik’s Concerto not as a piece in which he played the bassoon, but as an opera in which he sang a dramatic solo part.
The world premiere of Andrzej Panufnik’s Bassoon Concerto took place on 18 May 1986 in Milwaukee; Robert Thompson was accompanied by the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer.