Bassolo; XX and XXI centuries’ Contrabass Music

CD 1
Ryszard GABRYS (b.1942)
An die Freude for bass and voice (2004) [6:44]
Il cicerone for bass and arco instruments (2005) [19:47]
Witold SZALONEK (b.1927)
Musica concertante for bass and orchestra (1977) [27:01]
Edward BOGUSLAWSKI (1940- 2003)
Concerto-Fantasia for bass and strings (1999) [19:04]
CD 2
John CAGE (1912-1992)
59½ seconds for a string player (1953) [1:06]
Gérard GRISEY (b.1946)
Échanges (1968) [5:03] ²
Thomas LAUCK
Tu ha’ ‘l viso più dolce [4:51]
Andrzej DZIADEK (b.1957)
For Alexander (2009) [7:38]
Michael ROTH (b.1954)
Kavalkade (2008) [1:20]
Giacinto SCELSI (1905-1988)
C’est bien la nuit (1972) [2:54]
Helmut OEHRING (b.1961)
Foxfire zwei (1993) [7:42]
Gwyn PRITCHARD (b.1948)
Music for double bass and harp (1969) [7:09] ¹
Alfred KNÜSEL (b.1941)
Cadenza III (2009) [1:28]
Junghae LEE (b.1964)
Iyon – passage (2007) [10:49]
Jevgenij IRŠAI (b.1951)
Fremotonia (2002) [5:36]
Iannis XENAKIS (1922-2001)
Theraps (1976) [12:44]
Aleksander Gabrys (bass) with
Filharmonii Slaskiej/Czeslaw Grabowski, rec. live Katowice, February 2009 (Szalonek)
Orchestra Kameralna ‘Camerata Impuls’/Malgorzata Maniowska, rec. Studio Polskiego Radio Katowice, 2004 (Boguslawski)
Orchestra Kameralna ‘Camerata Impuls’/Malgorzata Maniowska, rec. live Katowice, December 2007 (Gabrys -Il cicerone)
Consuelo Giulianelli (harp) ¹
Jürg Henneberger, Daniel Buess (piano) ²
rec. Studio Koncertowe Polskiego Radia Katowice, 2010, except as above
DUX 0800-01 [72:36 + 68:20]

This is a redoubtable and in many ways remarkable collection of works written for the double bass. Many are stamped with the successive waves of uncompromising modernity that succeeded from the 1960s until today, but the aesthetics and means differ from composer to composer, generation to generation. There are two discs. The first is devoted to works with orchestra and the second is very largely solo, albeit there are small contributions in a couple of cases from other solo instruments. The vast burden of the 2 hours and twenty minutes thus falls on Aleksander Gabrys, who was born in 1974 and is the son of the composer Ryszard Gabrys, with whose music we begin.

An die Freude, for bass and voice, was written in 2004. It generates a disturbingly parodic effect, with the bassist being required to intone, sigh and slither the immortal words in a way that will, perhaps, remind one of Peter Maxwell Davies’s experiments in this arena. Il cicerone employs shouts too, and plenty of portentous, turbulent aesthetic. Covering quite some sonic ground, there’s humour here, a fine series of terraced dynamics, as well as a sense that the music is moving toward a kind of concerto grosso, a feeling reinforced when a Bach Chorale is quoted. Witold Szalonek’s Musica concertante is a powerful work, one that moves from quietude, ‘from silence’, through ominous accompanying string writing to an increasingly distraught conclusion. Edward Boguslawski’s Concerto-Fantasia for bass and strings also starts in a reserved way, but there’s a deal of dour material here, as well as a kind of sublimated neo-classicism, and calm lyricism, amidst the more angular inventions.

The second disc is almost all solo. There are some important names here — Cage, Scelsi and Xenakis are the most notable — but also some well known other composers too. Gabrys plays Cage’s 1953 59½ seconds for a string player on an (authorized) Bulgarian gadulka, a folk instrument that has been well recruited for the job. The succession of solo bass works reveals the variety of means open to the contemporary composer, whether it involves vocalising, quotations, or shredded violence. Thomas Lauck goes for Wagnerian quotation and vocalising whereas Gérard Grisey employs piano accompaniment of an especially terse kind. Michael Roth seems to draw on a variety of mildly crazed precursors; his piece sounds like something Hunter S. Thompson might have experienced after taking mescaline. Or, maybe, it’s the equivalent of jazz bassist Slam Stewart meeting William S. Burroughs. Helmut Oehring prefers a siren keening, Gwyn Pritchard pursues avant-garde rancour, Junghae Lee infiltrates electronics, and Jevgenij IrŠai is another in the long list who thinks that the bassist should vocalise too. However visually productive this may be in recital, the musical effect is, almost always, negligible.

Amidst the modish, garish and parvenu modernism on display we find an oasis. One such is Scelsi’s C’est bien la nuit, a work that so horribly dwarfs its disc-mates in means, intensity and directness of emotional response, that it’s almost painful. Nor, in its very different way, should one overlook the brilliant tour de force that Xenakis constructs in Theraps, with its quarter tones, glissandi, five octave span and stunning aural impression. It’s truly amazing in every respect.

It takes an exceptional bassist to encompass the wildly differing demands of the repertoire espoused in this two disc programme. No praise can be too high for Aleksander Gabrys and his colleagues, or for the way they’ve been recorded, and the discs annotated.

Jonathan Woolf

An exceptional bassist encompasses the wildly differing demands of this repertoire.