BOTTESINI: Music for Double Bass and Piano, Vol. 1 (Andrew Burashko/ Joel Quarrington) (Naxos: 8.554002)
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Works for Double Bassand Piano Vol. 1
It was a curious twistof fate that produced the nineteenth century's reigning double bass virtuoso.
When a boy of fourteen, Bottesini had already greatly developed his musicaltalents as a choirboy, a violinist, and a timpani player. His father sought aplace for him in the Milan Conservatory, but found only two were available; forbassoon, and double bass. Double bass it was, then. He prepared a successfulaudition in a matter of weeks, and only four years later, a surprisingly shorttime by the standards of the day, still a teenager, he left with a prize of 300francs for solo playing. This money financed the acquisition of an instrumentof Carlo Testore, and a globe-trotting career as "the Paganini of theDouble Bass" was launched.
The anecdote should beread not just as a curious chapter in the biography of a prodigy, but also asearly evidence of the extraordinary versatility that Bottesini exhibited forthe rest of his life. He toured throughout Europe, Latin America, and theUnited States, impressing audiences with his musicality as much as he astoundedthem with technical mastery of a "cumbrous" instrument. An Englishwriter who heard his London debut performance in 1849 recalled that "itwas not only marvellous as a tour de force, but the consummate skill of thisgreat artist enabled him to produce a result delightful even for the mostfastidious musician to listen to".
That innate musicalitynaturally opened toward two complementary paths, as a conductor and as acomposer. It was of course expected that the instrumental virtuosi wouldcompose works to show off their personal prowess. For example, Dragonetti, thegreatest bass-player of the preceding generation, left a great number ofpopular dazzlers; a genius composer-performer like Liszt could craft virtuosopieces that transcend technical display, and indeed could transcend his owninstrument. Bottesini is probably closer to the Liszt example. He wrote about adozen operas; from Cristoforo Colombo while in Paris in 1870, to LaRegina di Nepal for Turin in 1880. He also composed eleven string quartets(a genre scarcely noticed in nineteenth century Italy), songs, some sacredmusic, and a few orchestral works. However, only his music for double bass, andonly some of that, outlived him.
As a conductor andmusic director, Bottesini at one time or another held major posts at theatresin London, Paris, Palermo, Madrid, and Barcelona. Music history, however,notices most that he conducted the first performance of Aida in Cairo,to commemorate the opening of the opera-house. Verdi had been a close friendsince they met in Venice twenty years before, and nearly twenty years after Aida,he nominated Bottesini as Director of the Parma Conservatory, his lastpost, which he assumed only a few months before his death in 1889.
Italian opera in thestyle of Donizetti and the younger Verdi is obviously the fundamental languageof Bottesini's instrumental works, and that means an exaltation of melody aboveall else. The elaborate chromatic harmony and motivic manipulation of a Wagner,the subtle and abstract formal structures of a Brahms, are not to be found.
Rather, Bottesini's music insists that the double bass must always sing,sometimes in a declamatory mode, but mostly in chains of regular, lyricalphrases, only loosely related motivically, often dissolving into a mini-cadenzato close a section, whereupon a fresh cycle commences. The first challenge fora performer is to offer "purity of tone and intonation, perfect taste inphrasing", to borrow words used to describe the composer's own playing.
The particular charm and power of this music, then, is not so much in thecomposition itself, nor in the demands it undoubtedly makes of the soloist, butrather in the scope it provides for the soloist to communicate with, and tomove the listener. It is music more for the heart than for analytical minds, orfor just the fingers.
A rapid traverse ofthe instrument's whole range is Bottesini's most common virtuoso gesture; andthat range is greatly extended on the high side by an exploitation of harmonics(flute-like sounds produced by just touching the string at certain points,rather than pressing it to the fingerboard). Double stops and busy passage work,staple tricks of Dragonetti's generation, are more the exception than the rulehere.
These traits areespecially evident in the works recorded on this disc. Each of the five slowpieces, the three Elegias, the Melodia and the R?¬verie, whichin spite of the various titles all occupy essentially the same emotional space,opens with a short introduction, moves to the main section for the soloist,which yields to a contrasting middle section. Some sort of recollection of themain section follows, often with the piano taking the melody while the basssings a new countermelody to it; and then a coda provides a wistfulleave-taking of the work. Although both the Melodia and the R?¬verie wereoriginally written for cello solo, there is no musical or technical impedimentto a transcription for bass, nor any reason to suppose that Bottesini woulddisapprove. Elegia No. 3 is variously titled Romanza patetica,Melodie, and Elegia par Ernst.
The other pieces havea more bravura character, and more clearly segmented designs. The Capriccio showsa vague sonata-form plan in the fast section: exposition of two theme-groups,in the tonic and dominant keys respectively; a piano interlude, and a thirdtheme in a new key again - in the place of a standard "development";a recapitulation of the exposition in the tonic key; and a coda. The pieceswith dance titles are, after their dramatic introductions, neatly organizedaround nearly literal recurrences of the main tune.
The AllegrettoCapriccio is a dance piece too, a waltz. In Rudolf Malaric's edition, thereis the interesting subtitle "a la Chopin", which most probably is theeditor's suggestion of a certain resonance. Perhaps he had in mind a sort ofconflation of the piano master's Op.34, No. 1, and Op. 64, No. 2. Far lessspeculative is the source of the Allegro di Concerto "allaMendelssohn". Bottesini really did not need to provide a clue in histitle; at almost every measure the listener will be amused to recognise acreative paraphrase of that most famous violin concerto.
Notes by Jeffrey L. Stokes,
Dean of Music, University of Western Ontario, Canada
Born in Toronto, JoelQuarrington began studying the double bass at the Royal Conservatory of Musicwhen he was thirteen. His subsequent studies took him to the University ofToronto, then Italy and Austria. After more than a decade of leading the basssections in the Hamilton Philharmonic and later the Canadian Opera CompanyOrchestra, in September of 1991 he assumed the position of Principal Double Bassof the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. A past winner of the Geneva InternationalCompetition, Joel Quarrington has made solo appearances in Canada, the UnitedStates, Europe and China. He has played concerti with many Canadian orchestras,including those of Edmonton, Winnipeg, Hamilton and the National Arts Centre,as well as the Toronto Symphony. A double-bass teacher for the RoyalConservatory of Music, the University of Toronto, and the Canadian NationalYouth Orchestra, he is also a renowned chamber musician and much sought afterfor chamber-music festivals throughout No