By Colin Kaye
As low as you can get
Johann Baptist Vanhal.
There’s an old joke which asks how you get a double bass to sound in
tune. The answer is that you chop it up and make it into a xylophone.
There’s an element of truth in the joke because one of the challenges
for a double bass player is playing in tune. Even the finest players
sometimes make a gaffe. This is partly because the low notes are
extremely low and the high notes difficult to handle. It can be an
awkward beast to play.
The double bass goes by many
different names including the string bass, the upright bass, the
acoustic bass, the contrabass, the bass viol, or the standup bass. It’s
the lowest of all the strings and the lowest instrument in most
orchestras. Only the tuba can compete with it in terms of lowness. And
at about six feet tall, it’s a heavy old thing too. Even the smaller
double basses designed especially for children are not exactly compact.
When I was a music student and
played in orchestras I rather pitied the double bassists who had to cart
their elephantine instruments around. It always surprises me that so
many people actually want to learn it. Here in Thailand, there are a
surprising number of double bass players. The Thailand Philharmonic
Orchestra normally has eight of them. At a concert given a few months
ago by the Silpakorn University Summer School Orchestra, I counted
fourteen double bass players all of whom seemed pretty competent.
Before the twentieth century double
basses usually had only three strings, in contrast to the other
orchestral stringed instruments which had four. Today many professional
players use five string basses while others use basses fitted with a
thing called “a C extension.” This is a small additional fingerboard at
the top of the instrument that allows the player to reach bottom C,
technically known as C1. That’s almost at the bottom of a piano
keyboard and the lowest audible C in the world.
Unusually, the strings of the
modern bass are tuned a fourth apart, unlike the other bowed strings
which are tuned a fifth apart. This has led some people to conclude
that the double bass is descended from the historical string instruments
known as viols, because they were also tuned in a rather similar way.
And by the way, when you see bassists in an orchestra, you’ll probably
notice that they don’t all hold their bows in the same manner. This is
because there are two types of double bass bow, known as the French and
the German. The older German type is held like a viol bow with the palm
of the hand facing slightly upwards while the lighter French model is
held like a cello bow with the palm facing downwards.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Violin Concerto
No. 5 in A Major, K.219, transcribed for double bass.
Catalin Rotaru (db) and Chamber Orchestra at Symphony Hall, Bucharest
(Duration: 30:14; Video: 480p)
If you associate the sound of the
double bass with grunting low notes you’ll probably be surprised at this
performance given by the Romanian bassist Catalin Rotaru. Along with
bassists like Francois Rabbath and the legendary Gary Karr, he’s
considered one of the finest classical bass players anywhere. The work
is a transcription of Mozart’s most well-known violin concerto and
Rotaru produces a vibrant and smooth tone quality with a lovely sound in
the top register. You’ll notice that he uses the German style bow which
seems to suit his incredible technique – listen out for the difficult
double stopping in the cadenza at the end of the first movement..
Like many chamber orchestras, this
one performs without a conductor. Unfortunately it shows, for sometimes
the ensemble playing is a bit untidy and the woodwind section often
tends to play too loudly. Even so, it is worth hearing for Rotaru’s
superb solo performance.
Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813): Concerto for Double Bass.
Pingel (db), San Francisco Academy Orchestra cond. Andrei Gorbatenko
(Duration: 18:50; Video: 720p)
Scott Pingel gives a fine account
of this challenging concerto. While he uses the French style bow you
might notice that the orchestral bass player in the background uses the
The name Vanhal may be new to you
because his music is not heard often these days. Even so, he wrote a
hundred string quartets, over seventy symphonies and about a hundred
choral works. Although he came from a humble peasant family, he
achieved considerable fame in Vienna and elsewhere during his lifetime.
During his many years in Vienna he met Mozart and Haydn and they even
played string quartets together, with Haydn and the Viennese composer
Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf playing violins, Mozart playing viola and
Vanhal playing the cello. It would have been profoundly fascinating to
have heard this all-star cast performing together.
Beethoven around 1810.
“When shall we three meet
again?” is, you may recall, the first line spoken in the Scottish play (for
I dare not utter its name). It begins - somewhat unusually - with three
people saying goodbye to each other, but the significance of the number
three cannot have been lost on Shakespeare.
Apart from its religious significance,
Pythagoras regarded the number three as “the noblest of all digits.”
Western harmony is built on groups of three notes known as triads; in every
key there are three major chords and three minor ones. Many works are cast
in three movements and ensembles of three instruments are popular with
composers. Haydn for example, wrote forty-five piano trios. I keep the set
of CDs in the car, because with a total of ten hours playing time, there’s
more than enough to help me endure the worst traffic jams that Bangkok has
A piano trio is not, as some people
might logically assume, music for three pianos. Although it can be a work
for piano and two other instruments, it’s nearly always for piano, violin
and cello. Mozart wrote over twenty of them, Beethoven wrote thirteen and
the obscure but prolific Carl Gottlieb Reissiger found time for
You might be wondering how this
combination of instruments came about, so I shall tell you. But I’ll keep
it short because I can sense your eyes glazing over already. Although its
origins can be traced back to the Baroque, the emergence of the piano trio
coincided, not entirely surprisingly, with the invention of the piano.
Before then, people had to make do with the harpsichord, an instrument
unflatteringly described by the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham as sounding
like “skeletons copulating on a tin roof.”
At around the same time that the piano
appeared, there was an increasing interest in home music-making and a type
of composition known as the “accompanied sonata” became popular. In essence
it was a piano sonata with optional play-along parts for other instruments.
A flute or violin played more-or-less the same as the piano right-hand and
the cello followed the bass line. This was partly for commercial reasons
because a single work could be sold as a piano sonata, a violin sonata, or a
Haydn’s early piano trios followed this
same convention. But there was another issue, because eighteenth century
pianos were not very powerful. A richer and more satisfying sound was
produced by reinforcing the rather tinkly piano tone with the violin and
cello. In Haydn’s later works, the string parts gradually took on more
independent identities and some of his later piano trios – and those of
every composer since – are for three instruments of equal importance.
(1732-1809): Piano Trio in C major (Hob. XV:27).
Jonian Ilia Kadesha (vln); Vashti Mimosa Hunter (vc); Hyo-Sun Lim (pno).
(Duration 18:47; Video: 1080p HD)
This joyful, splendidly tuneful
three-movement work dates from the 1790s and has a demanding piano part,
particularly in the first and last movements. The video was made at the
International Joseph Joachim Chamber Music Competition at which the Trio
Gaspard won first prize. Hardly surprising too, because their performance
is outstanding. Their exuberant playing is infectious, the phrasing is
thoughtful, dynamics are carefully controlled and the articulation is
spot-on. The last movement is given a thrilling performance, although I
could have done with less theatre from the pianist.
Beethoven (1770-1827): Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70, No. 2.
Cleonice: Ari Isaacman-Beck (vln); Gwen Krosnick (vc); Emely Phelps (pno).
(Duration 30:02; Video 1080p HD)
Beethoven continued the piano trio
style where Haydn left off, but this 1808 composition inhabits a very
different sound world and unlike most of Haydn’s trios, this has four
movements. The string instruments are completely independent and at times
even dominate - a complete reversal of Haydn’s approach.
By the early nineteenth century, pianos
had a wider dynamic range, a larger range of notes and better resonance than
models built fifty years earlier - absolutely right for Beethoven’s dramatic
style of writing. This trio is full of memorable tunes and the superb last
movement (22:06) turns into a real roller-coaster ride with sparkling
playing from this talented young trio.
Oddly enough, the number three also
reminded me of the story about Lord George Brown, who in the late 1960s was
Britain’s famously boozy Foreign Secretary (and not to be confused with the
other George Brown, who became Prime Minister). At a diplomatic reception
Lord Brown allegedly requested a dance with another guest and received the
imperious response, “I shall not dance with you for three reasons. First,
because you are drunk. Second, because this is not a waltz but the Peruvian
National Anthem. And third, because I am not a beautiful lady in red; I am
the Cardinal Bishop of Lima.”
A special place
Sibelius in Vienna,
You might have come
across a website called Quora, on which people can pose questions to others
about virtually anything that springs to mind. Some of the queries are
quite interesting and often answered by specialist experts but other
questions strike me as verging on silliness. Last week for example, someone
had invited people to relate one of their memories of childhood that they
are too embarrassed to mention. This provoked a flood of responses and even
to my liberal mind some of the childhood memories were somewhat alarming and
hardly appropriate to repeat in a family newspaper. However, I can reveal
to you a memory of my own childhood that I rarely mention nowadays, if you
absolutely promise to keep it to yourself. When I was about eleven years
old, I scraped all my pocket money together and bought a record of Doris Day
singing The Deadwood Stage. There. I knew you would be shocked. My
parents were doing their best to get me interested in classical music and
they must have been taken aback to hear the lusty voice of Doris Day
unexpectedly belting out of the music room.
And do you know? The
reason that I found the song so pleasing is in my childlike mind, it created
a vivid picture of the Old West: the sun high in the sky and a horse-drawn
stage coach clattering along a dusty track in a wild and rocky landscape.
In retrospect, the slightly unrealistic imagery must have come from
Hollywood but even so, the jaunty song created in my mind a magical sense
of place. In later years I discovered similar qualities in Aaron
Copland’s music in which he often creates images of the spacious, lonely
atmosphere of the open prairie. In some of the moody orchestral music of
Villa-Lobos you can almost smell the dense, humid Brazilian forests.
This sense of place is
something appreciated by people who understand wine. You can often find it
for example, in some of the brittle Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand, the
richly flavoured reds of the Southern Rhône or even the fresh light reds
from Provence in the South of France. Sibelius too had the uncanny ability
to create musical images of his homeland: images which suggest the dark
frozen forests of northern Finland. The music of Vaughan Williams
invariably evokes images of England’s rural landscapes, prompting Peter
Warlock’s slightly dismissive remark that “it’s all just a little too much
like a cow looking over a gate”.
Sibelius (1865-1957): The Swan of Tuonela.
Norwegian Radio Orchestra cond. Avi Ostrowsky (Duration: 09:14; Video 480p)
This is one of the
composer’s more introvert pieces; music which transports you into a secret
and mysterious world of brooding shadowy landscapes with dark green forests
and ice-cold lakes. The piece is virtually a solo for cor anglais (a kind
of tenor oboe) and this exceptional performance is conducted by the Israeli
conductor Avi Ostrowsky and features the evocative playing of Ingrid Uddu.
Composed in 1895 when
Sibelius was thirty, this short tone poem is one of the movements of his
Lemminkäinen Suite, based on a story from the nineteenth century
Kalevala, one of the most significant works of Finnish literature. The
piece is scored for a comparatively small orchestra and the music paints a
haunting, unworldly image of a mystical swan floating on the gloomy river
around Tuonela, the legendary Finnish underworld and the island of the dead.
Frederick Delius (1862-1934): On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.
Orquestra Clássica do Centro (Portugal) cond. David Wyn Lloyd
(Duration 08:55; Video 1080p HD)
If the Australian
composer Percy Grainger hadn’t introduced Delius to a Norwegian folk song
called In Ola Valley, this cuckoo-inspired tone poem may never have
been written. Composed in 1912 and based on the same folksong, it’s the
first of Two Pieces for Small Orchestra - the second being the
equally evocative Summer Night on the River.
Delius was born and
brought up in Bradford but his parents were of Dutch origin, which explains
his rather un-English name. When this piece was written, Delius was an
established composer and although he lived in France for much of his life
the music suggests nowhere else but England. You would perhaps expect the
piece to be bright, sunny and optimistic but instead it’s reflective and
laden with nostalgia. Even the cuckoo imitation, played sadly on the
clarinet is steeped in melancholia.
This exquisite work is
a wonderful example of Delius’s personal and unmistakable musical
landscape. Some years ago, a new recording of On Hearing the First
Cuckoo came out. It was an unpleasantly beefy performance with little
sense of delicacy. The reviewer for The Gramophone magazine breezily
remarked that the piece sounded more like On Cooking the First Hero.
There’s no place like Rome
Composer Ottorino Respighi.
You know the saying, “When in Rome do as the Romans do”. It
sounds like another Shakespearean quotation but actually it has a much
longer history. It’s attributed to Aurelius Ambrosius, better known as Saint
Ambrose, a bishop of Milan who was one of the most influential
ecclesiastical figures of the fourth century. You might also be surprised to
know that Rome’s nick-name, The Eternal City is even older. It was
used among the ancient Romans because they believed that no matter what
happened in the rest of the world, Rome would go on forever.
And in a way
it did, though not quite in the way that they expected. Rome was a cultural
centre for hundreds of years and became a highlight on the itinerary of
every Grand Tour. Almost everyone who was anyone showed up there at some
point. Charles Dickens was one of them and he noted, evidently to his
disappointment that from a distance Rome looked rather like London. But on
that particular day the weather was dull and gloomy so perhaps that had
something to do with it.
opera La Clemenza di Tito was set in Rome and so was Puccini’s opera
Tosca. Some of the most popular compositions by the Italian composer
Ottorino Respighi are inspired by Rome. Between the years 1916 and 1928 he
wrote three separate orchestral works that have become known as the Roman
Trilogy written when the composer was at the height of his creativity.
They are Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals.
All three are sparkling works, full of brilliant orchestral colours and
immensely approachable. Early in his career, Respighi worked in Russia for a
time as an orchestral viola player. He had the opportunity to study
orchestration with that master of the art, Rimsky-Korsakov. And it shows.
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936): Fountains of Rome.
Orchestra of the Senzoku Gakuen College of Music (Japan)
(Duration: 18:22; Video 1080p HD)
over A Certain Age, you may recall that American romantic comedy from 1954
called Three Coins in the Fountain. The title song was performed by
Frank Sinatra and went on to become an enormous hit. It refers to the
tradition of throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain while making a wish.
(And in case you’re wondering, it is now illegal to steal the coins.) In
Respighi’s work each of the four movements depicts a Roman fountain at
different times of the day. The third movement is inspired by the majestic
Trevi Fountain at noon but the work opens quietly with a musical picture of
the rural Fountain of Valle Giulia at dawn.
plenty of fountains to choose from. There are fifty ornamental fountains in
the city and over two thousand smaller ones, originally built to provide
drinking water. They worked by gravity, because the source of the water was
high up in the hills and created sufficient water pressure to power the
fountains down in the city.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869): Roman Carnival Overture.
Cologne Philharmonic, WDR Symphony Orchestra cond. Jukka Pekka Saraste
(Duration: 08:46; Video: 720p HD)
Berlioz was another celebrity who was drawn to Rome and he was impressed by
the grandeur of the Colosseum and St Peter’s. This lively overture was first
performed in Paris in February 1844. Six years earlier Berlioz had completed
his opera Benvenuto Cellini which had been inspired by the colourful
memoirs of the eponymous sixteenth century Florentine sculptor. To create
this stand-alone piece Berlioz used various melodies from the opera as well
as some material from the opera’s carnival scene, hence the overture’s
of his contemporaries, Berlioz wasn’t a gifted child. His father was an
eminent doctor and the first in Europe to experiment with acupuncture. After
leaving high school in 1821, Berlioz was pushed off to Paris to study
medicine. But medical studies didn’t interest him. In fact, he hated them.
He enrolled instead for private music lessons and attended the Paris
Conservatoire. Berlioz became one of the most progressive composers of his
time and sometimes puzzled his audiences with modern sounds, unexpected
musical twists and original harmonies. Although this overture has a lively
opening, the first few minutes are dominated by a lyrical melody first heard
on the cor anglais. Even if you don’t know the work, you may well recognise
this tune. Then at 03:40 the carnival really gets going and jollity abounds.
There’s brilliant orchestration too, from another past master of the art.
Oh, I almost
forgot to tell you. I borrowed the title of this column from the last line
of the song Home, Sweet Home which amazingly dates back to the 1820s.
It was originally an aria in a long-forgotten opera but when the sheet music
was first published, it rapidly sold a hundred thousand copies and has been
used in countless movies ever since.
Mendelssohn at thirty (James Warren Childe,
If any piece of music evokes the sultry heat of summer in
South Carolina it’s the song Summertime written in 1934 by George
Gershwin for his opera Porgy and Bess. Strictly speaking, it’s an
aria rather than a song but it’s one of Gershwin’s best. It’s been described
as “one of the finest songs the composer ever wrote” and Stephen Sondheim
thought that the lyrics by DuBose Heyward were “the best lyrics in musical
theater”. The magic of the music seems to come from Gershwin’s use of
evocative slow-moving chromatic harmonies that make it sound like a blend of
a spiritual and a blues. Perhaps this is why it has become such a favourite
among jazz musicians.
Down at the drinking
trough the other night, someone brought up the subject of music inspired by
the summer which is how Gershwin’s song came into the conversation. The
summer theme has been a favourite of some classical composers too and the
symphonic poem Song of Summer by Delius springs to mind.
Incidentally, you may recall that fascinating 1968 TV movie of the same
name, brilliantly directed by Ken Russell which depicts the period when the
young Eric Fenby worked as Delius’s amanuensis. You can see the entire movie
on YouTube. Delius also wrote a short orchestral piece called Summer
Night on the River. In 1907 Joseph Suk completed A Summer’s Tale,
a long five-movement symphonic poem. The lesser-known Danish composer
Knudåge Riisager wrote A Summer Rhapsody for orchestra. But perhaps
the first work that springs to mind is a concert overture by the
seventeen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn, composed after he had read a German
translation of the Shakespeare play.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Overture, A Midsummer Night’s
Dream Op. 21.
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra cond. Kurt Masur (Duration:
12:46; Video: 720p HD)
Adding the opus number
after the title is not being unduly punctilious in this case, because
Mendelssohn composed music for this play on two occasions. First came this
stand-alone concert overture of 1826 and in 1842 Mendelssohn wrote
incidental music to the play (opus 61) only a few years before his death.
The opus numbers tell us which is which. George Grove - he of music
dictionary fame - called this overture “the greatest marvel of early
maturity that the world has ever seen in music” and for any teenager it
would be a remarkable achievement.
Like Mozart before him,
Mendelssohn was recognised as a child prodigy, though unlike Leopold Mozart
his parents did not attempt to capitalize on his talent. Born with the grand
name of Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy he was brought up in what
we’d describe as an intellectual and artistic environment. Between the ages
of twelve and fourteen, Mendelssohn wrote twelve attractive string
symphonies and his piano quartet was published when he was just thirteen. At
the age of fifteen he wrote his first symphony and at sixteen wrote the
String Octet in E flat, a work of remarkable maturity that is still
performed today. This overture shows exceptional musical and orchestration
skills and confident melodic writing. It was given its first performance in
Stettin, now part of Poland and known as Szczecin. To get to the concert in
February 1827 and incidentally, make his first public appearance, the young
composer had to travel eighty miles through a violent snowstorm.
Frank Bridge (1879-1941): Summer. Cole Conservatory Symphony Orchestra,
Johannes Müller-Stosch (Duration: 09:27; Video 720p HD)
Although the music of
the English composer Frank Bridge was once popular in Britain it has fallen
out of fashion, a phenomenon all too common in the world of classical music.
Bridge was an active performing musician on the London musical scene around
the turn of the last century, playing viola in several string quartets and
sometimes conducting orchestras.
This short orchestral
work is composed in an approachable style and, compared to what Stravinsky
was doing at the time, is perhaps a bit old-fashioned. In later years,
Bridge turned to a more astringent musical language, unconsciously
reflecting his own somewhat acerbic personality. It was in keeping with
times of course, but in so doing he probably did himself a disservice
because the general concert-going public found his more radical musical
style less approachable. According to Benjamin Britten, Bridge had strong
pacifist convictions and was deeply disturbed by the First World War. During
the war and immediately afterwards Bridge wrote a number of pastoral pieces
that appear to search for spiritual consolation. This is one of them, its
rich and sensuous chromaticism bringing distinct reminders of early Delius
and Debussy. Summer is a fine example of Bridge’s romantic pre-war
composing style, written in the fateful year of 1914 so the joys of that
particular summer were sadly rather short-lived.