CDE84544 Bottesini Virtuoso Double Bass vol. 1

Virtouso Double Bass vol. 1 - Giovanni Bottesini

Virtouso Double Bass vol. 1 - Giovanni Bottesini

Product Description

Virtouso Double Bass vol. 1 - Giovanni Bottesini

Virtuoso Double Bass
Giovanni Bottesini  1821-1889

Leon Bosch - Double Bass
Sung-Suk Kang - Piano

Romanza Patetica (Mlodie)
Meditazione (Aria di Bach)
Fantasie Sonnambula
Romanza Drammatica (Elgie)
Adagio par Ernst
Capriccio di Bravura

Devoted to the double bass.

‘I have no doubt that the double bass and I were made for each other - we’re completely inseparable and the music we make together brings me unbridled joy! It has always been my mission in life to defend the cause of the underdog and my passion for the double bass, the ‘Cinderella’ of instruments, will never die.

Every note I play on the instrument embraces my life experiences, both in Europe and in my South African homeland. I’ve known love and comradeship, but also witnessed the epitome of hatred. I’ve felt both shining optimism and deep despair. I’ve benefited from the pleasures of civilised society, but also seen the destructive impact of poverty and ignorance. I’ve been privileged to stand side by side with people who’ve lost their lives in the defence of their principles.

It’s difficult to explain exactly how life’s experiences distil into your music-making, but they most certainly do. First you have to face the fact that playing well is 98% perspiration – all the hard work that’s done in private. But then, when the day of the performance arrives, you’re looking to access that other, magical 2%, which is all about freedom and spontaneity – improvisation, almost. And what you have to draw on is the story of your life – in feelings, emotions and colours.

What you hope is that thereby you link to the mind of the composer. No phrase, or even a single note, should be allowed to pass by perfunctorily …it’s the performer’s solemn duty to seek to understand what the composer intended and then to express that unique personal understanding as if one’s very life depended upon it.

What is the point otherwise?

When I play the bass at least, I am a totally free human spirit.’

Leon Bosch

Bottesini: a genius rediscovered.

Not outwardly flamboyant, Leon Bosch’s quiet intensity nonetheless drives his points home. Underdogs rarely enjoy advocates this articulate – in this case the beneficiaries being both the double bass itself and the composer who championed it more than any other – Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889).

‘Bottesini was, by any measure, an extraordinary musician. He was not only a virtuoso double bassist of spectacular achievement, but also a successful composer and a highly respected conductor….he directed the premiere of Verdi’s Aida.

In Bottesini’s time, opera was where all the money and fame were to be found, but he was confident enough in his abilities to work in other fields. In his music he conveys in an incredibly sincere way the complex emotions we all feel as human beings. Even so, as a performer and a listener you need time with this music in order to appreciate it fully. When I was a student I spent 8 hours a day playing Bottesini, for a year. That way I got to know all the fine nuances of his language.

It was a real voyage of discovery and one I shall treasure forever. I felt a natural affinity for his music and the virtuosity so integral to his compositions. Once the notes and other basic issues have been satisfactorily dealt with, one’s imagination can begin to be harnessed and the true worth of this music revealed. Bottesini’s compositions for the double bass are richly influenced by the Italian gift for lyricism and melody, most evident in opera, of course. So the trick is to be able to really make the bass sing, to feel the dramatic intensity of the harmony…and to make the barlines disappear.

Concertgoers are understandably affected in choosing how to spend their money by the image they have of a composer. All I can say is that when people do hear Bottesini’s music, the reaction is extraordinary. I remember performing the Gran Duo Concertante in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall to a terrific response. Bottesini comes with no packaging in terms of image, so everything was down to the quality of the music. And that’s what made the impact.

When I was a student in Cape Town, I played Bottesini’s Elegy to a teacher of mine, Max Rünge. As a Jew, he’d suffered terrible things during the Second World War. When I finished the piece there was a long silence…..then I detected there were tears on his cheek. I think that was probably the first time I fully realised how much it’s possible to reach out as a performer and really touch people.’

Bosch nonetheless delayed and delayed the decision to record this album until he felt the time was right, the identification with Bottesini fully matured. The decision then was over the right partner. ‘I take an idiosyncratic view of this music and wanted a type of pianist with special expressive abilities as well as virtuoso talent.’

His thoughts drifted back to performances at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England during the early 1980s, with then fellow-student Sung-Suk Kang. An internet search tracked her down to Vienna. The invitation to record Bottesini was duly issued, despite Sung-Suk’s mystification at the thought of how many hundreds of pianists he might have asked instead. ‘I just told her she was the one who had what I wanted….a particularly effervescent quality of sound.’

‘Of course, I did just wonder if I’d become carried away by my memories, but the very first chord Sung-Suk played on my piano at home when she arrived for the recording sessions in the UK told me I’d been absolutely right. We rehearsed for two days, then recorded for three. When we finished, I realised I’d not had to say anything at all to her about how I wanted things to go. We just made music together…it was as if the quarter of a century since we’d last worked together faded away.’

Growing up in Apartheid South Africa.

Bosch knows only too well about the underdog mentality. If, that is, the word ‘underdog’ can do justice to the indignities suffered under the apartheid regime in the South African township in which he grew up. For one thing, life expectancy was low. Violence was a fact of life, he says. ‘Murders were an almost every day occurrence, with the inevitable upsurge on Fridays, when working men were attacked and robbed of their hard-earned wages. I’ve personally also been the victim of knife attack, but fortunately managed to escape with my life.’

Bosch’s great fortune was in having parents determined that their offspring should rise above it all. ‘The motto of the time was “Let us live for our children”. Education was seen as the key to the future. My father wasn’t actually all that musical but he was a very civilised man….a remarkable man. In fact, I’d like to dedicate my performance of Mélodie (‘Romanza Patetica’) to his memory. It was a piece he loved and we played a recording of it at his funeral in 1990. His parents worked on the land and he grew up in a small rural Moravian settlement, Genadendal, in the Western Cape. He took responsibility for his own early education. Eventually he left for the big city to train as a teacher. He must have been exceptional at his profession. One of my proudest memories is of the time a man with a briefcase came to our door. We thought it must be a government official, so were very wary. But it was a former pupil of my father. He’d been very successful and searched us out in order to say thank you to my father for the impact he’d had on his life.

At that time my father was banned from teaching under the Suppression of Communism Act – a piece of racist legislation dressed up so that it chimed in with the international politics of the time. He’d helped set up the first black trades unions and was in the forefront of political life. The last few years of his life were spent underground, on the run from the notorious South African Special Branch. When he was on his deathbed – still before the fall of apartheid – someone asked him how he’d define a ‘ghetto’. He described it in psychological terms: “A state of mind induced by the conditions in which we’re forced to live”. He meant that oppression can so easily degrade ambition, leading you to reject everything civilised instead of aspiring to it. It’s a grotesque corruption of what human life should be all about.

Luckily for his children, my father had the insight to see that it wasn’t just academic subjects that mattered in an education – the arts were important also. He bought us a piano, which must have cost what for him was a fortune, and a hi-fi system. One day when I was about 5 or 6 my father obtained the entire contents of a classical music record library that was being disbanded. A few thousand LPs! Every night there would be music at home, and quizzes to test if we could remember what we’d heard the night before!

My brother played the violin, my sister the viola and I took on the ’cello – and we all played the piano. All my parents could afford was a half-hour lesson a week – nothing compared with what kids at the top private schools in Cape Town were receiving. But I had no particular musical ambition for the future.’

At 3am on the 26th October 1976, it seemed as if Bosch might have no future at all. The date and time of his arrest by members of the Cape Town special branch are branded on his memory. He was just 15 years old. What had attracted attention was his political activity at school, where he was chairman of the student representative council. 1976 was a year of deep unrest among the suppressed populations of South Africa and Bosch felt the protests against apartheid should be mirrored at the school.

‘We then decided we’d go and demonstrate outside parliament…something that was illegal and even treasonous. The action started with just a few hundred people, but grew and grew into tens, possibly hundreds of thousands, the biggest protest Cape Town had experienced until that point.’

Bosch’s arrest was followed by a month’s detention and many kinds of torture. ‘Yes, I thought I might die. Of course I did. There were beatings, electrical shocks, Russian Roulette, insects poured on my head, ‘mock’ releases and so on. Not to mention threats made to my family. But you have resilience at that age…although I have to say that of the nine others arrested with me, several have been scarred mentally for life.’ Eventually Bosch was granted bail on the condition of attending a police station twice a day - ten miles from home, requiring a long walk and a slow bus ride.

Against all the odds, Bosch’s trial was a triumph for his lawyer, Abdullah Omar, later to become Minister of Justice in the new South Africa. ‘I was found not guilty on all charges. The consequence of being convicted would probably have been imprisonment on Robben Island, where of course Nelson Mandela was incarcerated.’

The relevance of all this to Bosch’s choice of career? Well, admiration for his legal team fired the ambition to study law at the University of Cape Town, but in the event the label of political troublemaker rendered his application useless. As an almost ironic reaction, he then applied to study the subject that above all others would least mark him out as subversive – music. The awkward bit was getting through a ’cello audition for the South African College of Music with tutor Allan Stephenson. A play through a piece by Bach was followed by questions to test Bosch’s general musical knowledge. Strange as it may seem, the embarrassment caused by the latter kick-started the passion that was to bring him a career at the very top.

‘I knew so little music theory….all I’d received was my half-hour instrumental lesson each week. So I could barely answer a single question. To my surprise I was accepted by the SACM. I then changed to the double bass after my first year, setting out to spend virtually every waking moment ensuring I was never humiliated in the same way again. I practised ceaselessly, but also went to rehearsals, to other people’s lessons as well as my own, pored over scores and so on.’

It paid off. At the end of his second year Bosch was awarded 95% in his performance exam – the highest mark ever awarded. He nonetheless insists that his progress was stalled by SACM teachers with racist agendas, ‘….who, for example, failed me in written exams when I had no doubt at all that I’d passed. But there were members of staff who took a keen interest – my teachers Zoltan Kovats and Max Rünge, and the SACM Director Brian Priestman, who in his capacity as a distinguished conductor gave me a concerto performance with the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra – unprecedented for someone from my racial background. The City Hall was a segregated venue at that time and my parents were unable to attend the concert.’

The culmination of Bosch’s time at the SACM came with a one-hour performance adjudicated by a panel headed by an external assessor, Sir John Manduell, Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music in the UK. ‘I decided to play only the music of Bottesini, the most important of all composers for the double bass. I received what I was told was the highest First ever awarded. And Sir John asked if I’d like to go to the RNCM.

I was thrilled, of course, but already knew how difficult it would be to leave the country. People with my political background weren’t allowed passports. If you went abroad you might mouth off the South African regime. I was lucky. A friend who was a travel agent slipped me into a touring party leaving South Africa on a Sunday…and he helped me apply for a passport late on the previous Friday afternoon. On the 3rd January 1982 I was on the plane. Next day, I was in the UK. A month later, settling in at the RNCM in Manchester.’

Settling in the UK.

Arriving at the college Bosch saw another side to musical life. He was astonished to find himself one of thirteen students in his double bass class. Britain seemed awash with concerts – a dozen or more each night in London alone. Having been used to driving himself on his own in the pursuit of perfection, he now learnt the pleasures of travelling and socialising. ‘I was no longer a recluse, and I’m sure the many new experiences benefited my playing. Technically things were pretty well sorted in my playing by the time I arrived in the UK. The time in Manchester was about broadening repertoire and expanding my experience of working in chamber music.

When it came to bridging the gap between college and the music profession proper I was greatly helped by members of the musical establishment, both at the college and elsewhere, not least when it came to getting auditions and entering competitions. They were very keen that people should hear me. Sometimes it was (almost) a case of ‘win the competition or starve’! It focused the mind.’

A concerto debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra, partnering Anthony Marwood in Bottesini’s Gran Duo Concertante, launched a solo career which has seen him making concerto and recital appearances on both sides of the Atlantic and also – to his great satisfaction – back in the ‘new’ South Africa.

‘The audience response is always the same: a hunger to hear other works in the double bass repertoire. If more orchestra managers and promoters experienced this sort of reaction they’d be happy to champion this wonderful instrument much more positively. They’d see this music speaks to people. The public can be far more open-minded than is often thought.

In one capacity or another I’ve toured the world and played the double bass in most of the major concert halls. This wonderful instrument can do anything. The repertoire is so rich, but rarely sees the light of day. And yet I could play you a two-minute piece by a composer you may never have heard of that will touch the emotions and express our common humanity as much as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius or whoever you wish to mention. Going against the tide is very difficult, but integrity and honesty are what matter.’

Double bass dilemma.

‘I had no cash at all as a youngster so never owned a double bass. Thankfully I was able to borrow one while I was at the South African College of Music….a marvellous double bass - only an un-named German trade instrument from the mid-19th century with little apparently to recommend it, but it just worked. When I first picked it up the sound was terrible, but playing it for many hours a day changed the quality completely.

Again, at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester I was allowed to borrow an instrument, the work of Ronald Prentice, an English maker. No-one wanted it, but as with the instrument in Cape Town I found that the more it was played the better it got…and it became one of the best the college owned.

Even so, I still missed the instrument I’d played in Cape Town. I managed to persuade the director of the SACM, Brian Priestman, that I could have it on ‘loan’ while paying for it as best I could. I played that for ten years until 1995. At which point a player in the north-west of England, Guy Henderson, offered me first refusal on his wonderful Gagliano. Gagliano was famed for his violins but his double basses also have unique qualities.

I know the very, very particular sound I’m after and I get 95% of it from the Gagliano. I’m still searching, though! I now have a collection of instruments, including those made by Valenzano, Lockey Hill, an old Brescian instrument and a cute little English chamber bass by Davies. My collection is however constantly growing as my search for the perfect sound continues. Likewise with bows – again, my collection continues to expand inexorably, leading often to a paralysis of decision!

Violins, violas and ’cellos always fetch higher prices than double basses. In a way, makers constructed double basses under protest. There are no Strads! So it’s always been a Cinderella instrument. And double basses tend not to survive so easily to old age. They get damaged simply on account of their size. But as with other string instruments, those that survive greatly benefit from ageing.

There are many good makers today. Some make their double basses to sound good immediately, but the qualities may not last. Others make instruments that take time to mature, and they tend to be more durable in the long run. But as in the whole history of instrument-making, everyone is constantly trying to find the secret of a great double bass.

The most powerful advocate for the double bass is simply the sound it makes. Just hearing it played really well is what will change minds. Wherever I perform there’s always surprise at how enjoyable and satisfying the experience of hearing the instrument is.

My job, though, is the same as any other soloist. You prepare all you can, but when you go on the platform you need to dig deep into your subconscious mind. You then have less control over what happens…you’re driven by a deeper force. You’re spontaneous and creative…but may have no idea why particular things happen. If you’re too scared of trying things, risking things, then you give clinical performances of no interest.’

© Andrew Green 2006Virtouso Double Bass vol. 1 - Giovanni Bottesini