Nate Helgeson: Origins

Nate Helgeson: OriginsI’m nostalgic by nature.

I guess that might not be too shocking, coming from someone whose chosen career is historical performance of centuries-old music. But it does explain why in this time when all of us are so uncertain about the future, I find myself thinking a lot about the past. The really ancient past of the 1700s, yes, but also the merely somewhat ancient past of my high school and college years.

Back then I didn’t play historical instruments, I had never seen a gut string, let alone a theorbo (...T-H-E-O-R-B-O, the largest member of the lute family…), and it hadn’t occurred to me that playing Bach cello suites on the modern bassoon was a dubious proposition. What I did do, though, was listen to recordings. Lots of recordings. Over and over again.

That appetite for recordings (was there CD binging before there was Netflix binging?) was actually what led me to pursue historical performance. In particular, it was a habit I and my friend Luke Storm had of trading listening suggestions. Luke and I would carpool together from Eugene to Portland each week for PYP rehearsals, leaving many hours for “Hey, dig this” sessions.

Luke plays tuba, so of course, his picks often featured eardrum-rending passages for the brass, which was alright I guess, since the road noise pretty well precluded your Mahler Adagiettos and your ‘Moonlight’ sonatas. But his taste was (and is) much more eclectic than mine, and while I was listening to wall-to-wall bassoon concerto albums, he was exploring more interesting things. Among those more interesting things were a lot of the recordings you’ll hear on this playlist. I owe a lot to those car trips, and to Luke. To this day he’s a kind and generous tuba player, and a most talented and virtuosic friend. You can hear him on a whole bucket of movie soundtracks, in concert all over southern California (at least once the Quarantimes are over), and on discs on the Moda and Innova labels.

So without further rambling about the glory days, here are some of the recordings that kindled my interest in baroque performance, long before I laid hands on a historical bassoon. Enjoy:

 

Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr, Corelli and Biber violin sonatas

With humble apologies to Monica and her many excellent discs, my introduction to the baroque violin came from these recordings of Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr from the early 2000s. Manze’s highly personal and capricious style was captivating to me. If you listen to a lot of violinists today, even modern ones, you can hear characterful playing all over the place. But if like me you were used to violinists of past eras (great though they were), Manze’s freedom and creativity is pretty shocking. Check out his other discs if you get a chance - they are all eye-opening.

And though there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to continuo players, Egarr is still my favorite. In fact, a little digression on Egarr: have a listen to the opening Adagio of the G minor Corelli sonata (no. 5), and if you read music, take a look at the score. That kind of inventiveness blew my 18-year-old mind, and it blows my mind today. You see one whole note on the page, and yet Egarr conjures a hundred ebbing and flowing notes in its place. Opinion varies hugely on just how faithful this kind of continuo playing is to what happened in the 18th century, but I have to be honest, I don’t really care. It’s a scarcely believable display of musicianship and personality, and I love it. Some of you might remember Egarr’s performances of Handel organ concertos in 2009 (or 2008?), where instead of playing a small portable organ like a normal person, he decided to use First Baptist’s full-size organ. The only trouble was that that instrument is pitched a half step higher, so he played all the concertos a half step down. E major instead of F. Ab minor instead of G. Unreal. I was there for one of the shows, as I imagine were many of you, and it confirmed my ridiculously high opinion of him. Richard, if you’re listening, come back anytime!

Danny Bond, Devienne bassoon sonatas, and Ensemble Zefiro, Zelenka Trio Sonatas

I had heard baroque bassoon before, but these two albums showed me what the baroque bassoon was capable of. Bond and Grazzi are living legends, and their playing blew up any notions I had that old bassoons were somehow limited or deficient compared to the modern instrument. Bassoon music isn’t everyone’s favorite thing, so I hope you’ll indulge me the 25- odd minutes of bassoon time. I promise it won’t be too painful.

Devienne and Zelenka were both interesting characters, although neither’s music is very well-loved today. If I do a post on the French revolution, I’m sure you’ll be hearing more from Devienne and his colleagues. Check out his bassoon quartets and flute concertos. And if the Zelenka disc interests you, I also recommend his sometimes oddball religious works. There’s something not quite right about Zelenka’s music. In a good way.

Il Giardino Armonico, the Four Seasons

I bet a lot of you have heard this album, or at least remember the provocative cover art. Once again, there are a lot of wild and crazy recordings of these pieces out nowadays, but if you stack this Four Seasons against recordings from past decades, especially by the big-name soloists, Onofri’s is bonkers by comparison. And unlike a lot of recordings of Italian music that are merely high, fast, and loud, Giardino Armonico’s is high, fast, loud, and full of character. The bird-song bits sound more like actual birds. The viola really does sound like a dog (well, close anyway). The icicles really are icy. The snozberries really do sound like snozberries. A lot of times in classical performance, “Beauty” (capital letters, scare quotes), takes priority over character, humanity, drama. Beauty is nice, I guess. I like a beautiful sound. But after hearing these recordings, listening to a performance of such over-played works that is just beautiful? What a missed opportunity.

So, until we can all be back together in 3-D, stay tuned for new playlists and more deranged, poorly organized commentary from myself or other PBO musicians. Our plan is to put up new posts and playlists each month, and our hope is that you’ll enjoy exploring repertoire, composers, and styles as much as we do. If music comforts you in uncertain times, maybe this will help just a little bit. Stay safe out there.

A couple of logistical notes: we’re using the Spotify platform for convenience and for the large library, but if you have something against Spotify or just can’t access it for whatever reason, these recordings are available elsewhere - a quick google search will usually get you to a bunch of listening options. And of course you can always buy the full albums, which usually benefits the musicians more directly. One nice thing about Spotify, though, is the tagging. If you want to hear more from an artist, composer, or ensemble, you can click on the text and Spotify links you to other recordings with that same tag. Needless to say, this leads me to spend many, many hours wandering down rabbit holes - but happily so! Give it a try. It’s a great way to find recordings you might never have discovered otherwise.

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