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Giovanni BOTTESINI (1821-1889)
Melodie [7.45]
Concerto in B minor [15.25]
Introduction and Gavotte [5.16]
Gran duo concertante for violin and double bass (1880) [15.03]
Wolfgang Harrer (double bass); Christian Altenburger (violin)
New Vienna Soloists/Gert Meditz
rec. Palais Schwarzenberg 1983-1986, and Schottenstift, Vienna 1987
VMS 607 [43.29]
 

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.
 
Christopher Fifield
 

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