Forgotten Treasures, Vol 03: Wiener Kontrabasskonzerte - Sinclair / Willens
Ars Produktion ARS 38 020
Classical - Orchestral
Hoffmeister, Pichl, Vanhal
David Sinclair (double bass)
Michael Alexander Willens
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Review by John Miller - February 17, 2008
If your only contact with the double-bass as a solo instrument is 'The Elephant' from Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals, this disk will open your ears. The double-bass was the last of the violin family to be developed, mainly because the 6-stringed bass viol was an excellent bass for accompaniments. Most bassists were loth to throw away a perfectly good instrument and buy an expensive new-fangled one. The 5-string replacements evolved during the C18th, and one product of that evolution was the Viennese double-bass, with its flat back, long fretted neck and gamba shape. It was tuned F'-A-D-f#-a compared with the modern bass tuning of E-A-D-G.
Canadian David Sinclair is an internationally acclaimed bassist who has made a special study of the Vienna Bass and a number of concertos written for it in the C18th, when it was a favourite at the princely courts of Central Europe. He plays an instrument from 1729, and is accompanied by the Kõlner Akademie, a period instrument band. They field an orchestra typical of that found at Esterházy during the period 1760-80: 10-12 string players with pairs of oboes and natural horns with harpsichord continuo.
The three concertos selected for this concert represent the period over which the Vienna Bass was in favour. They are in the generally popular concerto style used by Haydn, in three movements fast-slow-fast. They each have colourful orchestrations, good tunes and exploit the full range of the instrument's tone colours and capabilities. Conductor Michael Alexander Williams keeps things moving fluently, and clearly the orchestra is thoroughly enjoying their outing with the largest member of the string section.
Sinclair's solo work is little short of astonishing. He has to cope with virtuoso passages of rapid double stopping in 16th notes, sudden leaps from the depths to the topmost range, fast arpeggios and long cantilenas in the trombone-like baritone and lovely tenor-like upper ranges. The construction of the instrument was arranged to suit its unique tuning. Speaking of which, intonation on such large instruments is very difficult; I have heard bassists remark that they are lucky to get within 6 inches of the correct note! Many of the movements have written cadenzas which allow us to hear all the glorious resonances and rich sonority of this now forgotten instrument. It only takes a few moments of the first track to get over one's surprise at such tonal depth and range in a concerto solo instrument, then one relaxes into the music. The Vanhal work in particular is a very fine piece, with a noble and confident first movement main theme. Its slow movement is gracious and charming, with the bass approaching the violin's melody from its depths upwards, until it embellishes the tune itself in its best 'cello voice, almost reaching operatic intensity. Vanhal's finale then races off in great good humour with foot-tapping syncopations.
The 5.1 DSD recording is exemplary, taken with minimal microphones in a small church. There is air around the players but no excessive reverberance. The listener seems to have the best seats in one of the Esterházy's concert rooms. Woodwind/string balance is perfect for this size of orchestra, and the rich sonic character of the Viennese bass is superbly captured. If your system needs a good work-out of its deeper regions, then this disc will do it. The soloist's breathing and a few finger or bow noises can be heard, but this adds to the realistic picture of the performance.
The usual well-designed Ars booklet includes a fascinating account of the evolution of the double bass, notes on the composers and music as well as the usual brief biographies of the musicians, in good English and German. The provision of session photographs always helps the listener to visualise the orchestral seating and recording environment.
As soon as the last notes died away I just had to play the disc again. Undemanding music, yes, but very much of its time and giving great fun and pleasure. The disk is ripe for exploration if your musical tastes are even a little adventurous.
Copyright © 2008 John Miller and HRAudio.net