Classical Connections: As low as you can get

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There’s an old joke which asks how you get a double bass to sound in tune.  The answer is that you chop it up and make it into a xylophone.  There’s an element of truth in the joke because one of the challenges for a double bass player is playing in tune.  Even the finest players sometimes make a gaffe.  This is partly because the low notes are extremely low and the high notes difficult to handle.  It can be an awkward beast to play.

Johann Baptist Vanhal.
Johann Baptist Vanhal.

The double bass goes by many different names including the string bass, the upright bass, the acoustic bass, the contrabass, the bass viol, or the standup bass.  It’s the lowest of all the strings and the lowest instrument in most orchestras.  Only the tuba can compete with it in terms of lowness.  And at about six feet tall, it’s a heavy old thing too.  Even the smaller double basses designed especially for children are not exactly compact.

When I was a music student and played in orchestras I rather pitied the double bassists who had to cart their elephantine instruments around.  It always surprises me that so many people actually want to learn it.  Here in Thailand, there are a surprising number of double bass players.  The Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra normally has eight of them.  At a concert given a few months ago by the Silpakorn University Summer School Orchestra, I counted fourteen double bass players all of whom seemed pretty competent.

Before the twentieth century double basses usually had only three strings, in contrast to the other orchestral stringed instruments which had four.  Today many professional players use five string basses while others use basses fitted with a thing called “a C extension.”  This is a small additional fingerboard at the top of the instrument that allows the player to reach bottom C, technically known as C1.  That’s almost at the bottom of a piano keyboard and the lowest audible C in the world.

Unusually, the strings of the modern bass are tuned a fourth apart, unlike the other bowed strings which are tuned a fifth apart.  This has led some people to conclude that the double bass is descended from the historical string instruments known as viols, because they were also tuned in a rather similar way.  And by the way, when you see bassists in an orchestra, you’ll probably notice that they don’t all hold their bows in the same manner.  This is because there are two types of double bass bow, known as the French and the German.  The older German type is held like a viol bow with the palm of the hand facing slightly upwards while the lighter French model is held like a cello bow with the palm facing downwards.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K.219, transcribed for double bass. Catalin Rotaru (db) and Chamber Orchestra at Symphony Hall, Bucharest (Duration: 30:14; Video: 480p)

If you associate the sound of the double bass with grunting low notes you’ll probably be surprised at this performance given by the Romanian bassist Catalin Rotaru.  Along with bassists like Francois Rabbath and the legendary Gary Karr, he’s considered one of the finest classical bass players anywhere.  The work is a transcription of Mozart’s most well-known violin concerto and Rotaru produces a vibrant and smooth tone quality with a lovely sound in the top register.  You’ll notice that he uses the German style bow which seems to suit his incredible technique – listen out for the difficult double stopping in the cadenza at the end of the first movement.

Like many chamber orchestras, this one performs without a conductor.  Unfortunately it shows, for sometimes the ensemble playing is a bit untidy and the woodwind section often tends to play too loudly.  Even so, it is worth hearing for Rotaru’s superb solo performance.

Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813): Concerto for Double Bass. Scott Pingel (db), San Francisco Academy Orchestra cond. Andrei Gorbatenko (Duration: 18:50; Video: 720p)

Scott Pingel gives a fine account of this challenging concerto.  While he uses the French style bow you might notice that the orchestral bass player in the background uses the German type.

The name Vanhal may be new to you because his music is not heard often these days.  Even so, he wrote a hundred string quartets, over seventy symphonies and about a hundred choral works.  Although he came from a humble peasant family, he achieved considerable fame in Vienna and elsewhere during his lifetime.  During his many years in Vienna he met Mozart and Haydn and they even played string quartets together, with Haydn and the Viennese composer Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf playing violins, Mozart playing viola and Vanhal playing the cello.  It would have been profoundly fascinating to have heard this all-star cast performing together.