, July 2008
This attractive sampler of the music of Giovanni Bottesini, famous as a virtuoso of the double-bass and also a competent composer and successful conductor - he conducted the Cairo premiere of Aida in 1871 - was originally issued as ASV DCA 563. On ASV it was volume one of a series of four – perhaps the three other discs will also be reissued on Naxos?
Bottesini was one of those Italian musicians who found themselves labelled - or more likely invented the label as a marketing device? - “the Paganini of [their instrument]”. So just as, for example, Cesare Ciardi was referred to as “the Paganini of the flute” and Antonino Pasculli as “the Paganini of the oboe”, so Bottesini was known as “the Paganini of the double-bass”. Some of the music he wrote to show off his technique and his technical innovations is of little enduring interest, save to those who have a specialist concern with it. But, for the most part, the music on this present CD, while hardly of major importance, has a wider appeal.
There is often an air of the opera about a good deal of Bottesini’s music; aside from his work as a conductor in the theatre, he wrote some thirteen operas, the most successful being Ero e Leandro premiered in Turin in 1879. The Gran Duo opens with a heroic march which would not be out of place in the opera house and more than a few of its melodies are reminiscent of the same environment. What we hear here is not Bottesini’s original conception of the work – which was as a concerto for orchestra and two double-basses. Instead we hear a version prepared by the violinist Camillo Sivori (1815-1894), with whom Bottesini sometimes toured. In it one of the double-bass parts was rewritten for violin – and much enlarged – by Sivori, so that the two could play the concerto in concert. There are some strikingly high notes required of the bassist, as well as some testing pianissimos. Thomas Martin meets the demands pretty well, though here, and elsewhere on the disc, one would have liked to hear some slightly more assertive playing, some greater sense of instrumental display. Martin seems sometimes rather too reticent (if accomplished) a soloist fully to capture the flavour of Bottesini’s bravura music. Garcia plays with a rather greater sense of showmanship, perhaps better suited to the spirit of the music.
The Andante sostenuto for strings is an impassioned piece which sounds rather like an operatic intermezzo and would pass muster on the modern concert platform as part of a programme by a good chamber orchestra - and it is certainly played by one here. In the Duetto for Clarinet and Double-Bass Emma Johnson and Thomas Martin exchange phrases with an attractive sense of dialogue and though no great depths are plumbed, this makes for pleasant, relaxed listening.
The Gran Concerto which closes the disc is in three movements and is a rather more searching work. The writing for double-bass here goes beyond any sense of simple showmanship, however impressive. There is more musical substance and complexity here, the musical structures are more elaborate and the harmonies sometimes a little unexpected. Yet at the heart of the concerto, as at the heart of most of the music by Bottesini which I have heard, there is an essential simplicity, a kind of directness of feeling, a sense of social conversation, which while it may not make for music of great profundity certainly led Bottesini to the composition of music which is tuneful, accessible and consistently pleasant. I, for one, hope that Naxos will reissue the other three volumes in Thomas Martin’s Bottesini series. Incidentally, Thomas Martin’s website is well worth visiting if you want to learn more of Bottesini’s remarkable life.