Posted tagged ‘double bass’

English Chamber Orchestra at the Wigmore Hall, 3 November 2011

November 6, 2011

Lovely ECO chamber concert at the Wigmore Hall on Friday. First, out trot a pair of girls with curly hair and lacy black frocks, looking for all the world like long-lost sisters… They are Stephanie Gonley (violin, highly accomplished leader of the ECO) and Katya Apekisheva (young Russian pianist, prize-winner at the Leeds Piano Competition, evidently a rising star). We are treated to Schubert’s A minor Violin Sonatina (D385), a work of extraordinary depth and subtlety by a 19-year-old composer. Exceptionally, they played both repeats in the first movement (which Schubert obviously intends you to do). Plenty of fire, passion and introspection – the slow movement was heavenly. Stirring performance of a terrific piece.

Then came Mozart’s Horn Quintet, K407, in which the solo horn is accompanied unusually by a string quartet consisting of one violin, two violas and a cello. Soloist John Thurgood was his usual poker-faced but impeccable self, playing with great wit and aplomb and enjoying the musical company of his colleagues as much as they were enjoying his. (We wondered if cellist Caroline Dale had forgotten her black dress? The only player not in black – but the bluey one she wore was very pretty.)

After the interval, Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet, in an exceptionally spirited (i.e. fast) and lively performance – all great fun. Caroline Dale and viola player Jonathan Barritt would catch each other’s eye and grin hugely at crucial duetting moments. Stephanie Gonley led gamely from the front. My only quibble concerned the platform layout – pianist Katya Apekisheva seemed to be stuck at the back in a world of her own (though she managed some eye contact with Stephanie, and the ensemble was well-nigh faultless). Is there not some way of positioning the string players around the piano so that everyone can see everyone else, and we can see still see them? (Remember that Gerard Hoffnung cartoon…??)

Underpinning the whole performance was the velvety sonorous double bass of Stephen Williams – another poker-faced player, but one who evidently takes great pleasure in his role. He plays a huge, impossibly gorgeous and subtly decorated instrument by Gaspar de Salo, dating from the 1580s – which I thought was before double basses had been invented. A bit of a puzzle. (Oh, all right – cue for lecture about the double bass being a member of the Renaissance viol family and thus having older parentage than the upstart modern violin/viola/cello…)

Smashing evening – thanks for the tickets, Pauline! And thanks to Caro for joining us and for your luxurious hospitality over the Berlioz Weekend (which is another story…)

Advertisements

The Orchestra of St Paul’s…

April 26, 2010

…at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, yesterday (Sunday 25 April 2010), conducted by Ben Palmer.

The concert began with the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, beginning with a riskily fast tempo for the ‘slow’ introduction – the spooky music for the arrival of the statue of the dead Commendatore at Don Giovanni’s supper table;  but Ben Palmer knew what he was doing, and it worked.  The ensuing Allegro was a bit of a scrabble, the strings not quite in tune yet, the trumpets and timpani drowning everything out at their entries in the echoey acoustic of St Paul’s.  (Solution?  Harder timp sticks?  Just mark all their dynamics down a bit?  Make each entry a very quick diminuendo from a fortepiano?  Shame, as the ‘straight’ natural trumpets made a great sound, as well as looking terrific.) 

And the Overture ended with an awkward and stylistically out-of-kilter concert ending (necessary because in the opera itself the Overture doesn’t ‘finish’ but segues into the first scene in a different key).  Nul points to whichever publisher perpetrated that one – there are much simpler solutions that work fine.

Next came the reason we were there – my niece Rosie Burton playing the Hummel Bassoon Concerto.  There is something of a shortage of decent bassoon concertos (well, if you don’t count the 36 or so by Vivaldi, and one that probably isn’t by Rossini); the teenage Mozart wrote one, which is famous because it is by Mozart but is really not up to much (though you wonder what the other half-dozen or so he is alleged to have written might have been like).  Weber wrote the greatest of all, in 1811;  and that’s about it, apart from a few modern ones.  No Beethoven, Brahms Dvořák or Elgar… And then there’s Johann Nepomuk Hummel. He was an interesting chap – student (and lodger) of Mozart, pupil of Haydn and Beethoven, wrote some fine (and very jolly) chamber music, including the wittiest Wind Octet ever written;  and he wrote his Grand Concerto for Bassoon in 1805.  It isn’t heard very often, because it is VERY difficult:  not only is there lots of whizzing about in semiquavers, but the writing is awkward and un-bassoony – double octaves, huge skips and ever-widening arpeggio patterns – so the piece is even harder than it sounds.

Rosie did a fantastic job, performing with note-perfect accuracy, style, polish and fun, and above all with a gorgeous sound:  warm, rich tone, smooth and nutty, and totally under control at all times.  I am very envious! – and very proud.

After the interval, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D – an ‘early’ work that isn’t heard as often as it should be or used to be. Ben Palmer once again went for broke in his daringly fast tempi, but they paid off.  And this time the stabs of trumpets and timpani were perfectly judged, providing Beethovenian ‘punctuation’ with point and clarity but never drowning the rest of the band. 

The gently lilting ‘slow’ movement was refreshing – special praise for Tom Hardy on bassoon, along with the other woodwind principals – though I would have preferred just a little more room to breathe for the bouncy cello theme:  the tempo is Larghetto, after all. 

Conversely, the Scherzo felt as if it could have done with being even quicker.  But it made its Beethovenian mark, especially the moment in the Trio when the unison strings say ‘We’re going to play in F sharp major now’ and the rest of the orchestra says ‘Oh no you’re not!’

The Finale was an absolute rocket, and brilliantly effective.  Occasionally it seemed to totter on the verge of rushing out of control, but never quite did.  Ben Palmer captured perfectly Beethoven’s shock tactics and rough wit in the handling of the opening ‘yah boo’ motive, and conversely the hushed moment in the Coda when pizzicato cellos and basses step down and down into new harmonic realms, ‘as if’, in the words of Sir George Grove quoted by my brother Tony in his programme note, ‘we had passed through a door and were in a new enchanted world’.

Talking of which, one small disappointment was the presence of just one double bass – who was, however, always rock solid and perfectly audible;  but even with a small orchestra one surely needs two or three basses, especially as Beethoven himself apparently preferred to have more basses than cellos. 

Nevertheless, this was the most exciting and compelling performance of Beethoven 2 I have heard in a long time, or possibly ever;  by this time the orchestra was perfectly in focus and in full steam, and Ben Palmer brought it to life and made sense of the piece in ways I had certainly never heard before.  Great concert.

more about the orchestra on their website: http://www.orchestraofstpauls.co.uk/

Prom: Gürzenich Orchestra, Mahler 5 etc.

August 23, 2008
Angelika Kirchschlager

Angelika Kirchschlager

After the previous night’s Prom – when Jiři Bělohlávek drew a lovely light, fluffy sound from the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Dvořák’s bouncy and witty Slavonic Dances, and Janáček’s beautiful but maddeningly unfocused little-known early opera Osud – what a contrast yesterday to hear the rich glowing sound of the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne under Markus Stenz.

Their weird back-to-front programme – Mahler 5, some Schubert songs, Beethoven’s Overture Leonore No. 3 – turned out to be a re-creation of the first performance of the Mahler in 1904 (I hadn’t realised it had been written for this orchestra).  Plus – to bring us up to date – a chunk of Stockhausen, which succeeded in driving a lot of the audience away after the Mahler (rumour has it that it was scheduled to be a separate late-night Prom, but perhaps the Powers That Be had thought no one at all would have turned up).  As it was, the Albert Hall was respectably full but not bursting.

From the first tutti, the Mahler had an authentically ‘European’ sound:  big, colourful and full of character, supported on the cushion of those gorgeous strings – especially a phalanx of eight double basses across the back of the platform, where they became the beating heart of the orchestra, always supporting, always making their presence felt even in the softest pianissimo (and all bowing ‘underhand’ in Continental fashion).

Varieties of orchestral layout are a continuing fasciation;  the oddity of this one was that the brass were ‘back to front’, with the trumpets on the outside and the trombones and tuba nearest the middle.  This had the bonus of placing the tuba next to contrabassoon and double basses – good idea.  If I am not mistaken, the second violins sat opposite the firsts in the Mahler, but the violas went there for the Beethoven.  (The Stockhausen had a weirdly random layout, not explained in the programme).

‘A symphony must be like the world – it should embrace everything’, said Gustav Mahler:  it could be claimed that Mahler’s Fifth is the greatest of his symphonies, and one of the greatest of all symphonies (and I’m not just saying that because of its terrific contrabassoon part!).  The Gürzenich Orchestra gave it all they’d got, which was indeed plenty, although both the first trumpet (in his opening fanfare) and the first horn (in his solos in the huge Scherzo) were not entirely accident-free – though they improved once they had got over their opening wobbles.  Yet somehow, despite tremendously characterised and colourful wind playing, the sound remained slightly one-dimensional and the performance didn’t ever quite take off.  When Markus Stenz reached the final bombastic peroration, it didn’t seem to have earned its place in the scheme of things.  And heaven knows what he thought he was beating at the beginning of the (admirably unsentimental) Adagietto.

Stockhausen’s Punkte was a kind of smudged pointillist canvas (more…)