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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update July 30, 2016

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.

Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813): Concerto for Double Bass. Scott 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 German type.

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.

Update July 23, 2016

Three’s company

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 to offer.

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 twenty-three.

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 trio.

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.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Piano Trio in C major (Hob. XV:27). Trio Gaspard: 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.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70, No. 2. Trio 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.”

Update July 16, 2016

A special place


Sibelius in Vienna,
late 1880.

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”.

Jean 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.

Update July 9, 2016

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.

Mozart’s 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)

If you’re 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.

Respighi had 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)

Hector 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 title.

Unlike some 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.

Update July 2, 2016


Mendelssohn at thirty (James Warren Childe, 1839).

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, cond. 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.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

As low as you can get

Three’s company

A special place

There’s no place like Rome