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Sounds unusual

March 28, 2015

There’s nothing unusual about any musical instrument to the person who is its master. But if you look at those commonly played by concerto soloists, there’s only a handful that have a repertoire of hundreds of works at their disposal. When asked to think beyond the many famous examples for violin or piano, for example, other masterpieces spring much less readily to mind, even from amongst the most familiar orchestral sections. Interestingly, the Holland Festival has announced an initiative to ‘Save the Bassoon’ in its 2015–16 season and use eight short world première performances as part of an effort to spotlight what they consider an endangered instrument.

Piccolo player

Composers have always made grateful use of the musicians close to them, and renowned composer-violinist Antonio Vivaldi must have had a remarkably talented recorder player to hand to perform his concertos, one capable of virtuoso feats on even the tiny sopranino recorder (8.553829), an instrument you can easily carry around in an inside pocket. Its modern equivalent can be found at the top of the flute family in the piccolo, another instrument rarely heard as a concerto soloist, but one which held no fears for Peter Maxwell Davies (8.572363). Here’s the atmospheric opening of his Piccolo Concerto.

Giovanni Bottesini
Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the opposite end of the scale the double bass can be heard in every orchestra, but hardly ever as a concerto soloist. Every bass player, however, will know about Giovanni Bottesini. He was renowned as the Paganini of the double bass and was fully capable of displaying his virtuosity in his own works, both in chamber music (8.554002) and concertos (8.570397). In the opening of the finale of his F-sharp minor concerto, he gives himself a very grand fanfare to prepare for his entry.

Christopher Olka
Source: Yuen Lui Studio

Another orchestral cornerstone is the tuba, but it wasn’t until 1954 that Philip Catelinet became the first ever tuba soloist in Vaughan Williams’ pioneering concerto, a work which set a precedent for many others both in the UK (8.557754) and the USA. Described by conductor Gerard Schwarz as “the finest solo work for that instrument ever produced”, here’s an extract from Samuel Jones’ Tuba Concerto (8.559378).

Percussion instruments
Source: Wikipedia

After looking over the arguably less glamorous seats in the orchestra, it’s important to acknowledge the improved status given to the percussion department by contemporary composers. Joseph Schwantner’s Percussion Concerto (8.559678) has become something of a classic, while specialist ensembles consisting of percussion instruments further explore this section’s breathtaking range of sonority and colour. Scored for a hundred percussion instruments plus celesta, harp and piano, here’s an extract from Gunther Schuller’s Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards (8.559683).

Wind machine
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Exotic instruments which imitate the sounds of nature form another unusual sub-category. Once you have heard a wind-machine, you are unlikely to forget it, though in Ravel’s sumptuously scored ballet Daphnis et Chloé (8.570992) it is only one element amongst numerous other remarkable effects. You can hear it contributing dramatic splashes of colour at the end of Part II, as well as in his bewitching opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges (8.660215) as the fire leaps up the chimney in Arrière! Je réchauffe les bons. In the same work, you can also hear an owl portrayed by a slide whistle in Music of insects, of frogs, of toads,…

Toy piano

If you prefer representations of city sounds, then Edgard Varèse’s powerful Amériques (8.557882) is replete with whistles, bells and other percussion instruments, including something called a ‘Lion’s Roar’, a drum through which a cord is pulled. Perhaps most distinctive of all is the wail of a siren floating above the orchestra.

Moving beyond the world of acoustic instruments to electronics, one of the earliest electronic instruments was the Ondes Martenot. This was a favourite of the French composer Olivier Messiaen, and it can be heard to haunting effect in his Turangalîla-Symphonie (8.554478-79). It appears infrequently as a solo or chamber music instrument, but rare instrument specialist Thomas Bloch is capable of revealing all of its subtleties and strengths, as in this extract from Michel Ridolfi’s Mare Teno (8.555779).

A theremin and its player
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Film music would be the poorer without the theremin, an instrument performed without being touched by the player. Its eerie horror/sci-fi associations have a long pedigree, but Shostakovich used it effectively to illustrate a snowstorm for the film Odna (Alone) (8.570316). The huge double bassoon, another unusual instrumental creature, also makes a strong appearance in this score.

Ubiquitous in pop and rock music, there are few composers daring enough to write extended works for the electric guitar, but this is exactly what Luxembourg-born Australian composer Georges Lentz did in his 60-minute solo guitar work Ingwe (8.572483). Conceived as a meditation on the human condition, the bleak vastness of the Australian desert and the awe-inspiring radiance of its night skies, this is a unique work that provides an unusual play-out for today’s Thought for the Week.

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