Friday, July 7, 2023

In praise of the Viennese double bass

The double bass is mainly known as the grumbler in the low department of the orchestra. Very seldom it shines in a solo role. Recently three discs have been released which attest to its qualities as a solo instrument. That is to say, we have to do here with a special kind of double bass (in the liner-notes of one of the discs also called violone), known as 'Viennese double bass'. The booklet to the Glossa disc [1] explains its character: "A special characteristic is its five-string configuration with third-fourth tuning (F-A-D-F#-A), which is documented already in the late seventeenth century. In addition, the instrument was always played with frets, in contrast with the four-string models in the Italian tradition". Chiara Bertoglio [3] explains in what way this allowed this instrument to act in a solo role: "A higher number of strings, in fact, fostered the possibility of quickly spanning large intervals, and consequently of mastering virtuoso passages more easily. Agility was also fostered by the presence of frets and by the shape of the instrument. Frets allowed for a more precise intonation, but also for a technique similar to the guitar’s barré, i.e. the possibility of creating chords by positioning the finger transversely in correspondence of the fret. Moreover, the Viennese violone's silhouette, characterized by a very sloping upper part, permitted to the player to easily reach the high-pitched notes (obtained by pressing the strings in the instrument's lower part)."

Most music for the Viennese double bass was written roughly between 1760 and 1800. That is the time the music on these three discs was written. One of the main protagonists of the Viennese double bass was Johannes Sperger (1750-1812), who was educated at the double bass and was generally considered the greatest player of this instrument of his time. He left a substantial oeuvre, in which 18 concertos for double bass take a special place. The solo parts are demanding and undoubtedly reflect his own skills. Ján Krigovský [2] plays three concertos from his early period (1778/79): the concertos Nos. 3 and 4 appear on disc for the first time, whereas the Concerto No. 2 has been recorded for the first time on period instruments. Sperger's last concerto, which was written in 1807, has been recorded by Isaline Leloup [3], but then in a 'pocket-size' arrangement: the orchestral parts are adapted for string quartet. This was a common practice at the time, and this version is entirely convincing and does not fail to demonstrate the concerto's qualities. Sperger is also included in David Sinclair's recording [1], but then with a piece of chamber music: the Sonata in b minor from 1790 is scored for double bass and cello.

Isaline Leloup included a comparable piece, the Duetto in E flat for viola and double bass by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. It closes with a theme with variations, in which the two instruments alternatively play the theme and a variation. The third work on her disc is the Quartet No. 2 in D by Franz Anton Hoffmeister. Quartets for a solo instrument and string trio were very popular during the Classical period. The 'solo instrument' was mostly a flute or an oboe; here it is the double bass.

Sinclair offers two further solo concertos. The Concerto in D by Karl Kohaut, a lutenist by profession, but also a player of the double bass, is one of the earliest concertos for the Viennese double bass, and still has the traces of a baroque concerto. The Concerto in D by Anton Zimmermann was discovered recently and has been recorded by Sinclair for the first time. Zimmermann was a key figure in the orchestra of Pressburg (now Bratislava), where Sperger also spent six years of his life. Sinclair rounds off his programme with two further pieces of chamber music in which the double bass plays the part of another instrument. The Sonata in F was probably written by Andreas Lidl, but is performed here in an adapted version by Franz Xaver Hammer. The solo part was conceived for a viola da gamba. The disc closes with one of Haydn's baryton trios; the double bass takes care of the baryton part.

These three discs are of great importance and offer a fascinating insight into a little-known aspect of the music scene in the Classical period. Each of the pieces performed on these discs is of fine quality, and the solo concertos by Sperger are really exciting stuff. It is probably due to the fact that they require a special kind of double bass that they are not more often performed and recorded. We have here another example of music that only can be performed convincingly with the use of the instruments of the period. All three soloists are excellent in their own right. It is nice that their respective programmes are different, which means that the repertoire available on disc has been substantially increased. Sinclair is accompanied by teachers and former students of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, which guarantees high quality and consistency in the interpretation. Ján Krigovský, who is a member of Gunar Letzbor's ensemble Ars Antiqua Austria, and as such mostly plays baroque repertoire, is shining here in later music, with the assistence of Collegium Wartberg 430, an ensemble which plays a wide variety of music on the appropriate instruments. It does an excellent job here. Isaline Leloup has the support of four fine players on violins, viola and cello, and the result is a top-class recording of classical chamber music.

[1] "Wiener Stimmung - Works for the Viennese bass from the late 18th century"
David Sinclair, double bass; Teachers and former students of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis
Glossa GCD 922524 (© 2022) details

[2] Sperger: "Double bass Concertos"
Ján Krigovský, double bass; Collegium Wartberg 430
Challenge Classics CC72915 (© 2022) details

[3] "A Viennese afternoon - 18th century Viennese bass music"
Isaline Leloup, double bass; Patrick Oliva, Martha Moore, violin; Jean-Philippe Gandit, viola; Ronan Kernoa, cello
Da Vinci Classics C00410 (© 2021) details