CDE84550 The British Double Bass

The British Double Bass

The British Double Bass

Product Description

The British Double Bass

Gordon Jacob (1895 1984)
A Little Concerto for Double Bass and String Orchestra
 Andantino con moto  6 32
 Largo   3 23
 Allegro 4 31

Elizabeth Maconchy (1907 1994)
 Music for Double Bass and Piano (1970)  7 06

Thomas Pitfield (1903 1999)
Sonatina for Double Bass and Piano (1974)
 Poco Allegro    2 21
 Quodlibet: Moderato grazioso    2 23
 Allegro grazioso    3 41

Lennox Berkeley (1903 1989)
Introduction and Allegro for Double Bass and Piano (1971)
 Andante - Allegro   7 12

David Ellis (b.1933)
 Sonata op.42 for Unaccompanied Double Bass  6 07

John Walton (b.1947)
    A Deep Song for Double Bass and Piano   3 52

Alan Bush (1900 1995)
    Meditation for Double Bass and Piano, op.93 No.1     5 23
    Scherzo for Double Bass and Piano, op.93 No.2   6 07

John McCabe (b.1939)
    Pueblo for Solo Double Bass (1986)   1100 (written for Leon Bosch)

Elisabeth Lutyens (1906 1983)
    The Tides of Time, op.75 (1969) 7 11

Alfred Reynolds (1884 1969)
    Hornpipe for Double Bass and Piano   2 18

Leon Bosch - Double Bass
Sung-Suk Kang - Piano
I Musicanti



Sound Sample
20th Century Bass Beginnings in Britain

This CD is the first to feature works written for the double bass by some of the most important British composers from the late 20th century. It is all the more remarkable because John Walton is the only player-composer included. Alfred Reynolds is the senior by many years and, apart from Gordon Jacob, the only composer represented to be born before 1900. Unlike the piano, the violin and to some extent the cello, the solo double bass was neglected by the great luminaries Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Britten, and Tippett.

Historically, since the Viennese classical heyday when virtuosi such as Sperger and Pischelberger hobnobbed with the likes of Haydn and Mozart; when Dragonetti ruled supreme in London in the early 19th century, counting among his friends Paganini, Rossini, Hummel, and Spohr; when Bottesini entertained the masses with his pyrotechnical antics, described by one observer as 'a judicious compound of clockwork and steam', the instrument has had relatively few protagonists. Certainly, when compared with the recorded legacy of the keyboard, the voice or the string quartet, the bass really is a Cinderella. But apart from the obvious lack of repertoire, it is easy to see how this has come about.

In Britain, at the end of the Second World War, it was possible to leave the armed forces, pick up a double bass for around £5 and get into an orchestra with hardly any training. The secret was to leave out difficult passages, or fake them, and not to come in in the wrong place! There were more dance bands and salon orchestras than there were bassists to serve them, and the versatile beginner with a good ear and a sense of rhythm could do very well. It was also the time when Thomas Beecham was creating new orchestras; Walter Legge was courting great conductors, singers and instrumentalists to record with the Philharmonia; chamber orchestras were springing up in London and the provinces; the film industry was flourishing, and there was generally a lot of work to be had. Even as late as the 1960's there were players earning good money because they had a fine instrument, they made a big sound and they were reliable. It didn't seem to matter very much that their left hand technique was limited to a variable grasp, and anything above an F# was largely guesswork.

But there were many who trained seriously, who put in the hours necessary to develop good command of the instrument, and who held important teaching posts. Some, keen to explore the heights, went further afield, to Gaston Logerot in Paris, or to František Pošta in Prague. None, however, gave recitals.

Of the older generation of 20th century players, Claude Hobday was among the most influential. A fine chamber musician, he recorded Schubert's Trout Quintet with Artur Schnabel. He also commissioned Cecil Forsyth to re-score Bottesini's first concerto. Adrian Beers, who succeeded Hobday as professor at the Royal College of Music, spoke highly of a performance he had heard. H Samuel (Sam) Sterling, a respected London player, made a number of short transcriptions that were published by Augener. He also edited and adapted the Bach cello suites for Peters Edition. In 1924 Hawkes & Son published 'Difficult Passages for the Double Bass … Newly revised and enlarged by H Samuel Sterling' which was Sam's version of 'A Scrap Book, for the use of Students of the Double Bass by John Reynolds. Monday Popular Concerts, the Royal Italian Opera, etc., etc.'. The original publication comprised a good selection of challenging orchestral passages, together with extracts from Bach's Pedal Fugue, snippets of Handel trios, Kreutzer violin études, and Mendelssohn cello sonata movements (most of the transcriptions omitted in Sterling's revision). It also included an essay on the Mozart Concert Aria Per Questa Bella Mano K.612, entitled 'A double-bass mystery'. 'The question is, how are we to tune the double-bass in order to produce the notes written? and also, at what pitch are they to be played? If precisely in the treble cleff, as written, they will be found extremely difficult, if not impracticable. If an octave lower than written, the difficulty is not much less, and the effect by no means good. In fact, look at this work in any way, it is not double-bass music.' The lengthy diatribe concluded, 'QUERY. - Would it not make a good obbligato for the viol d'amor? In the preceding remarks, it is hardly necessary to say, there is no intention to criticise Bottesini's mode of playing this work. He had no more sincere friend, or ardent admirer, than the writer of these lines. Bottesini, no doubt, saw the absurdity of such passages being written for the double-bass; but the work had to be done, and he made the best of it, and even to do that was no easy matter.' There was clearly no understanding of the Viennese violone or double bass tuning of the period (F A d f# a) with which Mozart and Haydn were familiar. Double bass scholarship was almost non-existent in Britain at the time and publications such as there were, notably Friedrich Warnecke's Ad Infinitum, Der Kontrabass (Hamburg, 1909), were in German and largely unknown.

Even the tuning of the instrument had not been standardised at the beginning of the 20th century. Reynolds advocated re-tuning the lower strings (whilst playing), in order to avoid transposing orchestral passages up an octave, and would use D A d g, E A d g, E G d g, etc., as appropriate. He said that it was rare to find two players who agreed on the subject. A C White, whose Double Bass Music Primer (Novello, Ewer & Co. c.1893) was probably the most popular at the time, recommended tuning G D g. White, who had been a pupil of Dragonetti's student James Howell, taught at both the Royal Academy of Music and also at the Royal College. Charles Winterbottom (the teacher of John Walton) studied with him at the RAM and Claude Hobday (the teacher of Adrian Beers) at the RCM. The lineage is fascinating.

After Dragonetti, who died in 1846, and Bottesini, who appeared regularly in London and the provinces from 1849 until 1887, it was rare to hear a double bass soloist in Great Britain until comparatively recently. Even Eugene Cruft, who did more than anyone of his generation to standardise left hand technique after the war, seldom, if ever, gave a recital. Cruft had especially thin gauge gut strings manufactured, and also bows made to his own specifications. His method The Eugene Cruft School of Double Bass Playing (Oxford University Press, 1965), shows a stylish-looking performer poised to play, but history relates that when Koussevitzky conducted Pulcinella with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1930's and Gene played the solo, Koussevitzky was forced to look the other way because the gymnastic display was far more impressive than the curious rasping noises that ensued. Cruft's library was full of comprehensively bowed and fingered solo parts, but rumour had it that the piano scores were virtually new…

The first ever solo recordings of the double bass were made by Koussevitzky in 1927 and 1929, in Berlin. By that time he had all but abandoned his playing career and was focused on developing the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He had studied with the Czech teacher Rambusek in Russia in the 1890's and, as the recordings show, had clarity of tone and considerable facility that still sounds impressive today. There appear to have been no further commercial solo recordings until Georg Hortnagel played the Dittersdorf Concerto and Sinfonia Concertante for a budget price LP in the 1960's. Stuart Knussen recorded the first movement of the Koussevitzky Concerto, accompanied by Gerald Moore, also in the 1960's, but this was an EP (45 rpm) released by EMI as an educational venture, with Philip Jones playing the trumpet on the other side. The playing of Knussen, who was for many years a highly respected principal of the London Symphony Orchestra, is hardly inspiring by today's standards, although in its time it was considered remarkable. A little later, the ground-breaking recording of Gary Karr playing Paganini's Moses Variations was to make a serious impact on students and professionals the world over.

More recent years have seen huge advances in double bass scholarship, wider availability of performing literature, better understanding of technique, and an enormous increase in the number of young musicians capable of playing to a high standard. Digital recording techniques have revolutionised the industry and have made it possible to distribute CDs and DVDs of specialist interest on a scale that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Today the exciting opportunities for those with enterprise and who are keen to explore new repertoire are probably greater than ever before. One problem, sadly, is that it is no longer possible to pick up an instrument for £5!

© Rodney Slatford, March 2006The British Double Bass