About this Recording
8.557042 - BOTTESINI: Music for Double Bass and Piano, Vol. 2

Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889)
Music for Double Bass and Piano • 2


It was a curious twist of fate that produced the nineteenth century’s reigning double bass virtuoso. When a lad of fourteen, Giovanni Bottesini had already greatly developed his musical talents, as a choirboy, a violinist, and a timpani player. His father sought a place for him in the Milan Conservatory, but found only two were available: for bassoon and for double bass. Double bass it was, then. He prepared a successful audition in a matter of weeks, and only four years later, a surprisingly short time by the standards of the day, still a teenager, he left with a prize of 300 francs for solo playing. This money financed the acquisition of an instrument by Carlo Testore, and a globe-trotting career as “the Paganini of the Double Bass” was launched.

The anecdote should be read not just as a curious chapter in the biography of a prodigy, but also as early evidence of the extraordinary versatility that Bottesini exhibited for the rest of his life. He toured throughout Europe, Latin America, and the United States, impressing audiences with his musicality as much as he astounded them with technical mastery of a “cumbrous” instrument. An English writer who heard his London début performance in 1849 recalled that “It was not only marvellous as a tour de force, but the consummate skill of this great artist enabled him to produce a result delightful even for the most fastidious musician to listen to.”

That innate musicality naturally opened toward two complementary paths, as a conductor and as a composer. It was of course expected that the instrumental virtuosi would compose works to showcase their personal prowess. For example, Dragonetti, the greatest bassist of the preceding generation, turned out dozens of somewhat mechanistic pieces that tend to dazzle listeners more than to move them; a genius composer-performer like Liszt, on the other hand, could craft virtuoso pieces that transcend mere display, and indeed could transcend his own instrument. Bottesini falls between such extreme examples. He wrote about a dozen operas, from Cristoforo Colombo while resident in Havana in 1846-7, to Vinciguerro il bandito which had a run of forty performances in Paris in 1870, and La regina di Nepal for Turin in 1880. He also composed eleven string quartets, a genre scarcely noticed in nineteenth-century Italy, songs, some sacred music, and a few orchestral works. It was only his music for double bass, however, and only some of that, that outlived him.

As a conductor and music director, Bottesini at one time or another held major posts at theatres in London, Paris, Palermo, Madrid, and Barcelona. Music history, however, notices most that he conducted the première performance of Aida in Cairo, to commemorate the 1871 opening of the new Cairo opera house. Verdi had been a close friend since they met in Venice twenty years before, and nearly twenty years after Aida he nominated Bottesini as Director of the Parma Conservatory, his last post, which he assumed only a few months before his death in 1889.

Italian opera in the style of Donizetti and the younger Verdi is obviously the fundamental language of Bottesini’s instrumental works, and that means an exaltation of melody above all else. The elaborate chromatic harmony and motivic manipulation of a Wagner, the subtle and abstract formal structures of a Brahms, are not to be found. Rather, Bottesini’s music insists on relatively straightforward singing, sometimes in a declamatory mode, but mostly in chains of regular, lyrical phrases, only loosely related motivically, often dissolving into a mini-cadenza to close a section, whereupon a fresh cycle commences. The first challenge for a performer is to offer “purity of tone and intonation, perfect taste in phrasing”, to borrow words used to describe the composer’s own playing. The most common virtuoso gesture is a rapid traverse of the instrument’s whole range; and that range is greatly extended on the high side by an exploitation of harmonics (flute-like sounds produced by just touching the string at certain points, rather than pressing it to the fingerboard). Double stops and busy passagework, staple “tricks” of Dragonetti’s generation, are the exception rather than the rule here.

Not surprisingly, the best source for most of Bottesini’s works is Parma’s Conservatory library. When he examined the holdings there, Joel Quarrington found fair copies in Bottesini’s hand; that is, not sketches or composition drafts, but final product, perhaps intended to be an authoritative or archival version. Of course, multiple authoritative versions often exist: for example, a solo piece with accompaniment for piano, or string quartet, or full orchestra. Since Bottesini spent most of his career as a touring virtuoso, sometimes travelling with a partner but even then often collaborating with local players as arranged by the concert promoter, it was important to be able to work with varying resources. Those concerts were almost always eclectic, “something for everyone”, like a television variety show of the 1950s, and by modern standards, protracted affairs. An 1865 London concert included a symphonic overture and scherzo, a flute piece, a piano duet, a waltz, two arias, and the Duetto for clarinet and bass recorded here and that was all before the interval.

The Duetto for two basses is probably the earliest and most etude-like work on this disc, from a set of three dedicated to Bottesini’s teacher, Luigi Rossi. The Concerto No. 2, sometimes referred to as in A minor, or in B minor, for complicated reasons arising from old-fashioned tuning conventions, is a fully mature work, from the well proportioned, somewhat laconic first movement, through the simply singing second, to the third, driven by a rhythmic figure typical of the polonaise (and the Cuban bolero).

Other selections emphasize the essential vocality of Bottesini’s inspiration, most explicitly in the Bellini Fantasia, but stylistically so in the pairings of bass, always singing, now with clarinet, now with soprano. The anonymous texts are routine bourgeois expressions of popular Romantic sentiment; but in the case of Tutto che il mondo the music is very well known - Chopin’s Etude Op. 25, No. 7. The Bach transcription is perfectly straightforward. Can there be any instrument without a transcription of this piece? The Adagio melancolico projects that characteristic elegiac mood, demanding a virtuosity of feeling at least as much as of just technique, that Bottesini perfected for many of his stand-alone solo pieces.

Jeffrey L. Stokes

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