While the history of the double bass goes back something
like 500 years, its profile as a solo instrument is barely
half that. Dittersdorf wrote his concertos in the 1760s,
then there was the Venetian Dragonetti (1763-1846), the first
of the great solo virtuosi, whose concerto in A minor shows
not only the dexterity of his playing but to this day demands
the highest technical standards. Then there was something
of a hiatus until the next performing genius appeared, Giovanni
Bottesini, who also had a conducting career. He directed
the first performance of Verdiís Aida at its premiere
in Cairo to mark the opening of the Suez Canal in 1871, while
coincidentally there was another later conductor/bassist,
Sergei Koussevitsky (1874-1951), who also wrote a concerto
for the instrument. Bottesini was already a playing sensation
at the age of 19 when he emerged from Milanís Conservatoire.
His compositions include twelve operas, chamber music and
choral works, as well as several pieces for his instrument.
He played a three-stringed (A-D-G) bass, sometimes tuned
a fourth higher, reflected by modern day soloists (including
our own tonight) who tune their instruments a tone higher,
so E-A-D-G becomes F#-B-E-A. In the original manuscript of
this second concerto (to be found in Parma) Bottesini notates
his solo bass part at pitch, using treble and bass clefs
as appropriate. Bottesini wrote two versions, one accompanied
by a string orchestra (as are all the works recorded here),
the other adds a flute, and two each of oboes, bassoons,
horns and timpani in the outer movements only.
I conducted Bottesiniís B minor concerto in December
2005† with the hugely talented Alexandra Scott, currently
an apprentice bassist in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
under Rattle and a name to look out for. I was immediately
struck by the cello quality achievable on the double bass,
far from the†elephantine grunts in Saint Sšensí Carnival
of the Animals.
Three minutes into the beautifully haunting Melodie
on this disc and the listener is already in the realms of
harmonics and the natural habitat of the violin, as indeed
in the last minutes.† The Viennese Wolfgang Harrer plays
an 1802 instrument made by Antonio Bagatelle of Padova, upon
which he gives full throttle where required, shows expert
agility as well as colourful tenderness. Only in the upper
register are there uneasy moments of intonation and tonal
quality. Sound projection proved tricky in the concert I
conducted, as it has also done when the harp is the concerto
soloist. Here, however, microphones look after the solo instrumentís
interests, so there is no reason to reduce numbers of string
players in the accompanying orchestral textures, as sensitively
performed by the New Vienna Soloists under Gert Meditz.
The brief Introduction and Gavotte is another showpiece
and great fun, in which harmonics once again play a large
role in the work, most passages ending way up on the G string.
In the Gran duo concertante the double bass is joined
by its distant relative, the violin and Bottesini makes fairly
equal demands upon both instruments if a lot of emphasis
on double-stopping in the violin part. Christian Altenburger
is a fine player, but the piece does take a while to get
underway. Itís the last five minutes in which exciting fireworks
begin on both instruments, as if Paganini has joined Bottesini.
It all needs to be taken in the spirit in which and purpose
for which it was written, in other words as an opportunity
to show off to concert salon audiences of the day. While
Bottesini rose easily to the challenge, so it would appear
have his bassist successors of today.