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8.570398 - BOTTESINI COLLECTION (The), Vol. 2
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Giovanni Bottesini (1821–1889)

 

“He was one of the artistic geniuses of Verdi’s century, the most imaginative of the virtuosi. He succeeded in drawing something spiritual from the intricate mechanism of his instrument, and at the peak of his career this great artist gave lively interpretations of Paganini on the double bass. He was born in an era in which the masters of the earth were not engineers, but magnificent lords raised and enlightened by an intellectual hierarchy, and the favour of that generous and romantic age rested graciously upon him. Until the last he broke the bread of glory.” Thus begins the most famous piece written on Giovanni Bottesini: a chapter of Paese del melodramma (The Land of Melodrama) by Bruno Barilli. His fame spread around the world and his life, up to the few months preceding his death, was one long voyage. Given the time involved in travelling by contemporary means of transport, there is something fantastic about his appearances in the most distant of theatres. He travelled throughout Europe from Portugal to Russia and in the Americas, almost a month’s voyage away, and the success he met with is still talked of today.

Despite the ponderousness of the instrument, Bottesini made it do the unexpected. “Under his bow”, wrote Depanis, “the double bass groaned, sighed, cooed, sang, quivered, roared – an orchestra in itself with irresistible force and the sweetest expression.” The last word belongs to Barilli, with his evocative description of the scenes at his concerts: “Indescribable. The aristocratic court audience was ecstatic. Applause and calls for encores exploded down the disorderly rows at every bar. The magnificent ladies, finely clad, in the theatre boxes of the aristocracy were caught up in the applause without warning, trying to retain their modesty, laughing behind their fans. Supported by his great wooden sound-box, Bottesini leant over his instrument like a conquering hero.”

The virtuoso was first given the nickname ‘the Paganini of the double bass’ in Parma on 12 December 1843 following a landmark concert before the Duchess Maria Luigia. Many anecdotes caricatured his success and it seems that Bottesini was the inspiration for Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Oyayaie ou La reine des îles. Bottesini was a “generous and intelligent character in a lanky body, stupefyingly absent-minded” and too good-hearted. He earned incredible sums only to die penniless and have his funeral paid for by Parma town council. His mistake was to ignore Rossini’s advice, who, writing to tell him that he had recommended him to the court of St Petersburg, finished his letter “Make yourself known. Earn as many roubles as you can, save them up for your old age!” How did he lose everything? The answer lies in one of Bottesini’s letters. He was worried about what he had left behind in Egypt: his women, the Arabs who looked after the house, his pets. For in Cairo Bottesini had collected a veritable seraglio in his villa on the banks of the Nile. Gaming took care of the rest.

Apart from his skill on the double bass, Bottesini was a brilliant all-round musician. He was one of the first Italians, if not the first, to unite the figures of the concert musician and orchestral conductor in Havana in 1847. As a conductor he travelled to all the corners of the globe, winning respect for his precision, accuracy, his faithful readings of composers’ intentions – although sometimes accused of a certain stiff formality of interpretation. He was one of the leading Italian conductors, highly innovative, conducting a large number of symphonies and working with soloists on various instruments.

Bottesini’s approach to chamber music was equally innovative. He was one of the founders of the first Italian Quartet Society in Florence in 1861 and among those founding a similar society in Naples on 2 September 1862, wanting this kind of music – loathed by Verdi – to have its hallowed temple. A few years previously in London, on a legendary evening in August 1856, Bazzini, Arditi, Piatti and Bottesini had performed five of Donizetti’s unpublished quartets, written at the age of nineteen.

In addition to performing, Bottesini composed quintets and quartets for string instruments. In 1862 he won the Basevi competition with his Quartet in D, inaugurating the second year of the Florence Quartet Society with the performance. His other chamber compositions (of which orchestral versions also exist) were masterpieces of exhilarating pyrotechnic virtuosity. Pages could be dedicated to his drawing-room airs (more than seventy are known to exist), his symphonies, his sacred music (his Requiem), his educational compositions (his Method), but there is not space enough here.

Bottesini’s lyric operas must not be overlooked. Although they did not meet with great success at a time when Italian opera houses were obsessed with Verdi, certain passages deserve recognition as being jewels of expressive, appropriate melody. Among these operas Ero e Leandro and Alì Babà merit special mention. In the former the Sacred Dance, the dance of colours, anticipated heated discussions on the relationship between music and colour by some years. For its part Alì Babà has seen hundreds of rather unusual performances this century: in 1914 Poldrecca founded the Teatro dei Piccoli in Rome, and toured the world with operas directed, sung and played by top professionals, with stage sets and costumes by the greatest Italian artists, but performed by the ‘Piccoli’ – and Giovanni Bottesini’s Alì Babà was the puppets’ greatest success.

Gaspare Nello Vetro

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Prelude to Ero e Leandro
Concertino in C minor
Sinfonia to Il diavolo della notte
Passioni amorose
Elégie in D
Overture to Alì Babà
Duo Concertante on Themes from Bellini’s ‘I Puritani’

 

Prelude to Ero e Leandro is the overture to what is considered Bottesini’s greatest operatic masterpiece. Verdi conceded in a letter that it seemed to be the success of the season in 1879, the year of its première at the Teatro Regio in Turin. At the first performance the composer was called to the stage 23 times and the Preludio was encored. There were 28 repeat performances and at some of these Bottesini serenaded the audience during the interval with his double bass. The librettist was Boito, who later provided the libretti for Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and three great Verdi operas, Simon Boccanegra, Otello and Falstaff.

Bottesini’s Concertino in C minor predates the much more grandiose and heavily scored Gran Concerto in F sharp minor. In this original version it is scored for double bass and strings. The soloist is obliged to tune his instrument a minor third above the orchestral tuning of the double bass. This is perhaps the most popular of Bottesini’s compositions for the instrument among bassists today. In common with most of Bottesini’s music he provides very sympathetic and interesting accompaniment for his own solo part. Virtuosity serves musical ends throughout and the Concertino is considered by many to be his finest composition for double bass. The three movements are marked Moderato, Andante and Allegro.

Bottesini spent most of his 37th year in Milan, where Il diavolo della notte was given its première at the Santa Radagonda Theatre on 18th December 1858. Preceded by a Sinfonia, it is a classic comic opera in the style of Rossini, set in the court of Louis XIV. The opera was well received and (as with Ero e Leandro and Alì Babà) was published by Ricordi, to whom it is dedicated.

Passioni amorose for Two Double Basses, an early work, is one of a number of compositions for this combination of two double basses which were written for Bottesini to play with his friend from conservatory days, Arpesani. It was Arpesani, in fact, who told Bottesini where to find the Testore bass which became his lifelong companion – in the broom closet of a Milan marionette theatre. In these three pieces (marked Allegro deciso, Andante and Allegretto) one feels the young virtuoso not only stretching his technical horizons but also developing as a composer.

The Elégie in D is one of several Bottesini compositions in slow, singing style with titles such as “Romanza“,“Melodia“ or “Rêverie“. It is scored for double bass and strings. There are instructions at the end of the score either to finish (as here) or, probably as an afterthought, to follow on with a contrasting Tarantella, differently scored for the usual opera orchestra.

1870 found Bottesini working mostly from Paris and enjoying the protracted success in Monte Carlo of his opera Vinciguerra il bandito, which ran for forty extra performances. The Franco-Prussian War, however, forced him to flee to London. After a solo tour of provincial British cities, he was asked by the impresario Tito Mattei to write a comic opera, and he completed Alì Babà in only seven weeks. The opera opened at the Lyceum Theatre in early 1871 and was far more successful than expected, running nightly for nearly a year. The production then went to Madrid. In the 1920s the opera was revived and adapted for the famous puppet theatre Piccoli di Podrecca, and in 1924 it earned a triumphant reception when performed by English singers at the Garrick Theatre in London.

Bottesini composed his Duo Concertante for Cello and Double bass on Themes from Bellini’s I Puritani for the 1851 seasons in London and Paris, to be performed with his great friend and fellow student at Milan Conservatory, Piatti, regarded as the great virtuoso of the cello. The technical requirements in both parts are formidable and the composition is rarely performed for this reason. Although he wrote several works for the combination of cello and double bass, this is the only one to have survived. There are two manuscript versions which differ in many small details: the present recording uses material from the collection of Franco Petracchi.

Thomas Martin


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