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Hyperion Records

CDA67179 - Dittersdorf & Vanhal: Double Bass Concertos

Recording details: March 2000
The Concert Hall, Örebro, Sweden
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Ken Blair
Release date: October 2000
Total duration: 69 minutes 26 seconds

‘Nwanoku’s playing is both athletic and eloquent in these appealing bass concertos. [She] plays her solo music with due vivacity and skill … as graceful as can be imagined on her instrument. Paul Goodwin’s neat and sympathetic accompaniments, his leisurely pacing and his judicious balance…make this disc even more appealing’ (Gramophone)

'A most enjoyable disc' (BBC Music Magazine)

'An ideal coupling, very well recorded' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'Chi-chi Nwanoku is a delightful soloist. [Her] light-as-air sound and technical clarity are a continual source of pleasure' (International Record Review)

'An elegant performance. Beautifully played and phrased by Nwanoku, who reveals the lyrical potential of the solo bass' (The Strad)

'A treat' (

Dittersdorf & Vanhal: Double Bass Concertos
Allegro moderato  [7'55]
Adagio  [9'48]
Allegro  [6'51]
Allegro  [6'49]
Adagio  [5'41]
Presto  [6'47]
Allegro moderato  [7'08]
Adagio  [6'41]
Allegro  [4'22]

Three attractive and lively concertos by two exact 18th-century contemporaries (they were both born in 1739)—the Viennese Dittersdorf and the Bohemian Vanhal who on at least one occasion played string quartets with Mozart and Haydn. (Haydn and Dittersdorf played violins; Mozart played viola; Vanhal the cello.) This seems to be the only recorded pairing of the two Dittersdorf concertos.

Chi-chi Nwanoku (the accent falls on the first syllable) is a familiar figure in the line-up of many of London's 'period instrument' ensembles (she is Principal Bass with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) and has appeared on countless recordings. This is her first solo recording.

Chi-chi's first career was as a 100-metre sprinter, competing at `national' level, but this sadly ended with a knee injury. Fortunately her other passionate hobby as a pianist had continued alongside her athletics, and she was able at the age of eighteen to take up the double bass and pursue a career in music, studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London and with Franco Petracchi in Rome. She is now Professor of Double Bass at Trinity College of Music in London and was made a 'Fellow' of the Royal Academy of Music in 1998.Chi-chi plays an instrument by Nicolas Amati (Cremona), dated 1631.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In the late 1920s Serge Koussevitzky (1874–1951) made the first-ever solo recordings of the double bass. Following a dazzling career as a young virtuoso in Russia he hardly touched the instrument after taking up his conducting appointment in Boston, but he dusted it down for a charity performance that was subsequently committed to 78s. The results are fascinating and, given that no editing was possible and that he was out of practice, he must have been a wonderful player. His repertoire, however, was limited. On disc we have his own Chanson triste and Valse miniature together with a number of transcriptions; there is nothing from the golden era of the late eighteenth century. Georg Hörtnagel was the first to dip his toe into that period with a recording issued in 1966 of the Dittersdorf Concerto No 2, one of the very first double bass concertos to appear on disc. Today the picture is very different and the avid collector may have over a hundred CDs on the shelf, albeit with many works duplicated but with a wide range of recitals, contemporary music and all manner of transcriptions or arrangements for double bass in a variety of different combinations.

Authentic interpretation of early music before the last few decades of the twentieth century was largely in the domain of the enthusiastic amateur and a few dedicated professionals. With some notable exceptions, many of the most erudite scholar-performers of the 1950s and 1960s took enormous liberties with style and interpretation which were in their way no less presumptuous than Mendelssohn writing a piano accompaniment to ‘improve’ Bach’s Chaconne in D minor for solo violin, Mozart reorchestrating Handel’s Acis and Galatea, Messiah and Alexander’s Feast with the inclusion of clarinets and other ‘modern’ instruments, or Beecham adding cymbal crashes to add zest to the famous ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. In a more modest way, the double bass repertoire has suffered a similar fate. Some printed editions bear little resemblance to the works they claim to be, having sometimes been transposed into other keys, partly recomposed or seriously simplified. One fanatical editor reputedly erased notes from autograph manuscripts that he deemed unplayable or unsuited to an instrument he believed he understood.

Before the work of Adolf Meier in the 1960s there was little modern understanding of the instrument that was in common use in Dittersdorf’s day. Meier examined nineteen basses in Vienna, made in and around the city from 1729 to 1836, and he discovered that although many of them had been altered over the years, most were originally built as five-stringed instruments and that they had probably had frets. Further research led him to believe that the most popular tuning at the end of the eighteenth century was a combination of fourths and fifths, something like a viol, with the lowest string F, then A–D–f sharp–a, only the A and D being in common with today’s standard orchestral tuning. Meier then turned his attention to the repertoire and in 1969 published his Konzertante Music für Kontrabass in der Wiener Klassik, which catalogued and dated the double bass works in the Landesbibliothek Schwerin. The collection had belonged to the virtuoso bassist Johann Matthias Sperger (1750–1812), himself a respected composer of forty-five symphonies, masses and concertos, whose œuvre included seventeen concertos for the double bass for his own use. Meier’s research traced correspondence and the records of court orchestras, handwriting and even paper watermarks in an attempt to identify dates for some of the compositions he found. He brought to light a rich source of material that had lain more or less undisturbed for over 150 years. The bassist Klaus Trumpf has since made a further detailed study of Sperger’s works; Alfred Planyavsky, another respected double bass player and historian, has also contributed much research.

All this, however, is comparatively recent. In 1897 the distinguished theorist Ebenezer Prout declared that the only example he knew of the double bass being used as a soloist with orchestra was the ‘extremely curious’ solo part by Mozart in the concert aria Per questa bella mano (K612) that ‘some of the most eminent double-bass players of the present day declare to be quite impossible on the instrument’. Various hypotheses were put forward about its having been written for some instrument other than a bass, particularly since the great Giovanni Bottesini (1821–1889) had performed it in London and the result was ‘far from satisfactory’. To all intents and purposes, the key to the performance of a vast number of important double bass works from the Classical era had been lost and buried with the works themselves. The playing tradition had become shrouded in the passage of time.

Earliest references to a double bass type of instrument in printed treatises appears in the mid-seventeenth century. The first ‘method’ as such was not to be published for another hundred years. Evidence points to a considerable amount of experimentation: sizes of instruments varied enormously and there was little standardisation of tuning. Strings varied in number between four and six, with some of the bigger basses being confined to outdoor use or occasional church performances, where they could add weight to support large instrumental and choral forces. String manufacture was primitive and even as late as the 1850s orchestral players often wore leather gloves to protect their fingers when changing position (a practice that was discouraged for the right hand as it made bowing more difficult!). The advent of silver wire-coverings for lower strings enabled thinner strings to be made and shorter playing-lengths to be used. Consequently, smaller instruments could be built—one of the major factors that led to the development of the cello. By the end of the seventeenth century there was already clear delineation between the violoncello and ‘The double Basse’, ‘Contre-basse’ or ‘Violone’, although the double bass was to remain something of a bastard boasting a wide variety of names and an embarrassing plethora of tunings.

Very few solo double bass works from the period had been published in the 1960s and those that were in print had been adapted, sometimes quite brutally, to make them work on an instrument tuned in fourths: E–A–d–g, or more usually F sharp–B–e–a, the modern scordatura used by most soloists from the beginning of the twentieth century. Some of the adaptations worked well, but where composers had taken advantage of the harmonics available in the third-fourth ‘Viennese’ tuning, there was little that could be done to accommodate rapid passages in thirds, leaps that involved open strings, or string crossings in arpeggiated patterns that had become the hallmark of so much string writing of the day. Passages were either transposed where they lay more comfortably on a modern bass, inverted, or often omitted altogether, thereby rendering any classical shape or form largely undetectable. Few players were any the wiser and much of the literature we know today that wouldn’t readily adapt remained buried in libraries and museums, almost impossible to access and in some cases even uncatalogued.

Comparatively little is known about early virtuoso players who worked in Vienna in the eighteenth century, but it is clear that a school of playing emerged that had never been seen before. Joseph Kämpfer (1735–1796) is generally believed to be the first to have had the confidence to put himself about as a soloist. His mission was to raise the status of the instrument from that of a bottom-line player to something more spectacular, and by most accounts his use of harmonics and his technical dexterity served him well. Not all critics were enthusiastic and in Paris one wrote that his ‘endeavour was more extraordinary than agreeable’. None of his own music survives but, under the patronage of a wealthy amateur player in Vienna, Kämpfer was able to attract public attention. One of his first posts was at the court of Prince Esterházy and Alfred Planyavsky believes that the bass solos in Haydn’s symphonies 6, 7, 8, 31 and 72 were written for him. He visited England, but his success there was nothing compared to that of Domenico Dragonetti (1763–1846) who was probably one of the finest bassists ever to have lived.

Another virtuoso, Ignaz Woschitka, like Dragonetti, excelled at playing continuo ‘at the harpsichord’. Apparently blessed with very long sight, Woschitka could read details in the score over the shoulder of the harpsichordist with ease and accuracy. He probably came from the same school of playing as Kämpfer and we know that he often performed a popular concerto of his own. Nothing of it has survived, but we do know that he settled in Trier and played ‘like a storm roaring and wailing through the oak tops’.

‘The brave Pischelberger’, as Dittersdorf called him (1741–1813), worked in Emanuel Schikaneder’s Freihouse orchestra at the time when Mozart wrote The Magic Flute and it was for him that Mozart wrote Per questa bella mano. Friedrich Pischelberger was a member of Dittersdorf’s Grosswardein orchestra with Václav Pichl (1741–1805) from 1765 to 1769 where he gave the first performances of both Dittersdorf concertos and also the concerto by Pichl. Sperger, who had moved to Vienna in about 1767 from his native Bohemia, is thought to have gone there to study composition with Albrechtsberger and also the double bass with Pischelberger, which probably explains how copies of repertoire used by Pischelberger came to be in Sperger’s library. Sperger’s challenging cadenzas to the Dittersdorf concertos are part of his legacy, together with manuscripts and instrumental parts for concertos by Anton Zimmermann, Vanhal and Franz Anton Hoffmeister, all of which were written at about the same time.

Inevitably, with the demise of court and chapel orchestras, the extraordinarily fertile period of the development of the Viennese virtuoso double bass style came to an end. Nineteenth-century symphonists were looking for different sonorities and with the evolution of the modern orchestra the whole pattern of European musical life was to change irreversibly.

The works recorded here are heard more or less in their original versions, the only major change being in the accordatura used. It was customary in the late eighteenth century to tune the solo double bass a semitone higher than normal, so it would have played in D but sounded in E flat. This scordatura has not been used here, the bass and the orchestra playing and sounding in D. Orchestral material has been faithfully edited from eighteenth-century parts, with dynamics added where appropriate. There are mistakes in the source material, but they are mostly obvious and are usually confined to rests or rhythms that have clearly missed a stroke of the copyist’s pen. The first Dittersdorf concerto is titled Concerto per il Violone and the second Concerto per il Contrabasso, the first probably dating from 1766 and the second from 1767, both having been conceived for the same player and the same instrument. Dittersdorf’s humorous touches (cut in the Tischer-Zeitz printed edition) and his evident relishing of the low notes of the instrument when juxtaposed with high harmonics and acrobatics, are all part of the fun, as are the chords and the helter-skelter arpeggios. Dittersdorf and Vanhal may not be in the same league as Haydn and Mozart, with whom we know they played string quartets, but with most of the contemporary cadenzas restored (probably Sperger’s) three of the most important pillars of double bass repertoire can for the first time be heard as they were intended. How sad that Haydn’s concerto perished in the fire at Esterháza, as we presume it did, or we might have had an even more priceless jewel to add to the crown!

Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739–1799) was born in Vienna and became one of the most important figures of the Viennese Classical school. His father was able to afford a good education for young Ditters who studied music, French and religion privately, besides attending a Jesuit school. His violin teachers recognised his flair for composition and he soon found himself with a court position where he could study more seriously. Early in 1763 he went with Gluck to Italy where he performed as a violin virtuoso with some success. In 1765 he succeeded Michael Haydn as Kapellmeister to the Bishop of Grosswardein, where he built up a good orchestra and a group of singers and was able to turn his attention to writing his first oratorio, Isacco, along with some operas. In 1770, the year after the Bishop disbanded his Kapelle, Ditters was made Knight of the Golden Spur and in 1773 Empress Maria Theresia ennobled him and he became ‘von Dittersdorf’. He died two days after dictating the last pages of his autobiography.

Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739–1813) was an extremely prolific composer whose works are still the subject of research. One of the difficulties facing scholars is the location of original manuscripts. Towards the end of his life, Vanhal is said to have given away pages of his music to friends as they left his house! Only quite recently a divertimento was pieced together from manuscript fragments discovered in Prague, Bologna, Vienna and Paris. He was born in Bohemia and began life as an organist and choirmaster, but his ability as a violinist and composer impressed Countess Schaffgotsch, who took him to Vienna in about 1761 where he studied with Dittersdorf. He subsequently became a teacher himself, with Pleyel among his pupils. By 1800 his popularity as a composer had spread as far as America and he had many works in print; although his later works fell victim to his own mental frailty, the best of his symphonies (of which there are over seventy) and his chamber music (probably around a hundred works) deserve more attention than they receive. He left more than seven hundred works when he died, many of which were considered in his day to stand up well to some by Mozart and Haydn. He was one of the first independent artists of his time and throughout his life held no official appointment, living much in the way that a freelance professional musician does today.

Rodney Slatford © 2000

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