Making an entire concert of double bass solos and duos sound like anything other than subterranean mooing requires solid technique. Making that program grip and move an audience as well as impress them requires far more. Repertoire that showcases the instrument’s uniquely plummy tone and sheer power is key, yet the bottom line is always expression. That’s why they’re called musical instruments.
It’s a tough act and not many bassists choose to do it. Enter Edwin Barker and Timothy Pitts. Their “Due Bassi Profundi!” program, presented by Rockport Chamber Music Festival at the Shalin Liu Performance Center on Sunday, was as virtuosic and emotional as any concert featuring smaller fingerboards.
Boston Symphony Orchestra Principal Edwin Barker began with a strong yet sensitive interpretation of Schubert’s Sonata in A Minor, D. 821, “Arpeggione.” Written for the arpeggione (basically a six-stringed bowed guitar), this work was composed by Schubert during the depths of a painful bout with syphilis as well as depression, and just in time for the fad for the instrument to die. Fortunately Schubert’s poignant lyricism and ranging emotions survive in various transcriptions for different instruments, including Stuart Sankey’s transcription for double bass (further analysis here), used by Barker on Sunday.
Instead of making the bass sound like a big violin or a low cello, Barker used the instrument’s distinct grain to color the opening Allegro Moderato’s legato phrases in the upper register. He handled the spinning 16th notes with even articulation and a buttery tone (solid values regardless of instrument), though the lugubrious coda sounded out of place. Pianist and Rockport Artistic Director David Deveau provided solid accompaniment throughout, but he covered up some of Barker’s hushed phrases. They maintained a clearer balance for the lonesome Adagio, with Barker’s bass as resonant and warm as an operatic baritone and enhanced with a palette of vibratos. Tastefully shredding through the closing Allegretto, Barker made things look and sound easy while making the Schubert’s original instrumentation an afterthought.
Musicality also trumped original orchestration for the 18 Duos from Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins, SZ 98. Bartók composed the 44 Duos as pedagogical works based on his own modernist recasting of native folk music. Walter Kurz transcribed 18 of the duos for cello, and Barker in turn “tweak[ed] them to make them reasonably idiomatic for the basses.” Joined by Timothy Pitts, former principal for the Houston Symphony as well as the Handel and Haydn Society, the two basses jelled cohesively and nimbly. The instruments allowed Bartók’s jarring dissonances to pop without the twang of a violin.
The players’ distinct sounds prevented monotony amidst all those cavernous notes. Pitts offered a dry tone and brusque attack compared to Barker’s smoother, more measured delivery. Barker occasionally came off as too aggressive, for example the singsong “Dance,” but he really dug into more upbeat lines such as those of the kicking “Cushion Dance.” The contrast between the two made for a deliciously arid reading of the “Lullaby,” and the pumping “Rutén kolomejka (Ruthenian Kolomejka)” brought the first part of the concert to a foot-tapping close.
Following intermission, pianist Dina Vainshtein accompanied Pitts for Sperger’s Sonata in D Major for Bass and Piano, T140. Sperger, a contemporary of Mozart, was trained in Vienna and composed some of the first solo features for double bass. Sperger’s Sonata featured Classical era motor rhythms, sonata and rondo forms and an air of elegance and symmetry, which Pitts approached with spontaneity and individualism. The same issues with balance between bass and piano crept in, this time resolved by the middle of the first movement Allegro Moderato. Taken at a defiant clip, some listeners may have preferred more colors across the range of the instrument, yet Pitts stressed the driving energy at play, with the development section sounding almost improvised. The central Adagio was playful rather than tender, though here and elsewhere Pitts tended to elide the individual notes of faster phrases in favor of massed effects. Vainshtein’s accompaniment remained lively and firm and Pitts’s spirited coda in the concluding Rondo seemed like it could have burst into still greater variations.
Not surprisingly, the program ended with a work by the “Paganini of the double bass.” Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889) was a virtuoso bassist in high demand throughout Europe as well as a respected opera composer and good friend of Verdi. His Passione Amorosa, Concerto for Two Basses and Piano, is an operatic display with plenty of lush, melodramatic solos and duets. Paganini’s prodigious technique and his high expectations for technique in others were evident throughout its three brief, interconnected movements. Unfortunately, the high tessituras and tight blends didn’t always emote on Sunday. For the first time in the program, Barker’s and Pitts’s notes sounded squeezed or muddied, especially when both players were dialoging in their instrument’s lowest and highest extremes for the climactic Allegretto.
Despite these slips both players handled their arias without words with rounded, sensual phrasing. Melodies and rhythms proved infectious. For an encore the pair trotted through Rossini’s humorous Duet for Cello and Double Bass in D Major —another transcription, executed as though it was written for these players as well as their instrument. Maybe next year they’ll do Vivaldi or Paganini himself.
Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz, and blogs on a variety of music at clefpalette.wordpress.com. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.