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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Sonata for piano and cello, Op. 38 (1862-65)
(trans. Niek de Groot) [27:42] Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)
Sonata for double bass and piano (1975) [13:36] Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Sonata for double bass and piano [13:08] Pēteris VASKS (b.1946)
Sonata for solo double bass (1986) [16:55]
Niek de Groot (double bass)
Catherine Klipfel (piano)
rec. 2014/15, Kleine Zaal, Muziekgebouw Eindhoven, the Netherlands. NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6312 [70:24]
Dutch-born double bass virtuoso Niek de Groot has worked in the contemporary music Nieuw Ensemble, as co-principal with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and principal with the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway, making it to the position of principal solo bass with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1996. Pianist Catherine Klipfel is also no slouch, having won international prizes and performed as soloist before co-founding the Morgenstern Trio.
This intriguing programme begins with Niek de Groot’s own transcription of Brahms’s Op. 38 Cello Sonata, played in such a way as to make us forget almost straight away that this is a bass rather than a cello. Projecting with an expressive tone which has nicely proportioned vibrato, this is a version that goes beyond being merely credible, and I can imagine every bass player with any ambitions to perform in recitals acquiring the score. Other than finding this utterly convincing there’s not a great deal more to be said here. The first movement is paced nicely, with good forward momentum while leaving plenty of space for expression from both players. The middle movement is light and dance-like as it should be, and the final Allegro with its Bach-like counterpoint is direct and energetic – the depth of the bass putting it at less of an advantage against the piano at certain denser moments it has to be said. This isn’t going to dislodge any of the cello versions from your affections, but you’ll be amazed at how well it works.
Hindemith’s Sonata for bass and piano is considered the first original sonata for this combination by a recognized composer, and as such is one of the few works to meet much in the way of competition as regards alternative recordings. In fact there are few enough in the catalogues, but in trawling around I came across a substantial double bass programme on Simax Classics PSC1157 with Dan Styffe that also includes the Gubaidulina sonata. Honours are about equal in the Hindemith, though I think Niek de Groot gets a little more wit and lightness from the first movement, even though his pizzicato notes could be more distinct in the recording. This is quite a compact sonata with a crazy central Scherzo, the emotional weight being held in the longer final movement. Styffe has a way of sliding around between the notes in the expressive lyrical passages here, which brings me more firmly down on the side of de Groot, who delivers a delicious performance of this admittedly somewhat austere work.
Niek de Groot has worked with Sofia Gubaidulina many times, and with her involvement and changes to details in her Sonata for double bass and piano for Niek’s performances this has to be something approaching a definitive interpretation. “Often on the verge of silence and with the darkest sounds”, this is not an ‘easy’ piece, but with the instruments “acting like two solitary cats stalking each other” there is a great deal of pregnant atmosphere and subsumed mood to engage with. Melodic fragments emerge like cells, and effects on the strings of the bass call out like sounds from nature. This is the kind of piece that is easy to pass over if you don’t have the patience, but it will deliver its own rewards to the attentive and those with a little imagination.
Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’ Sonata for solo double bass is a substantial four-movement work that might seem an unusual choice for a final piece on this programme. Vasks started out as a double bass player however, and his intimate knowledge of the idiom and techniques for this instrument and the unified nature of the tonality and themes of the music delivers a wide-ranging and deeply satisfying sonata. There is always an underlying lyricism in the work, even in the col legno and percussive effects in the second movement Fantasia. The final movement, Melodia, has a singing part for the soloist in the final bars, taken with appropriate reserve in this case.
Richly recorded, this is a very fine release indeed. The Eindhoven acoustic is not especially characterful but at least is not a distraction other than being mildly boomy from time to time. The balance between detail and space is fine. The mixture of romantic and contemporary music works very well, and every aspect of de Groot’s fine Amati bass can be heard. This instrument is illustrated on the back of the booklet.