Notes and Editorial Reviews
THE DOUBLE BASS
Robert Oppelt (db); David Hardy (vc);
Nicolette Driehuys (fl);
Dotian Levalier (hp);
Elisabeth Adkins (vn);
Paula Akbar (vn);
Ruth Wicker Schaaf (va);
James Lee (vc);
Richard Barber (db);
Jeffrey Weisner (db);
Ali Yazdanfar (db)
MSR 1221 (69:42)
Pas de deux.
Danses sacrèe et profane.
Kentucky-born double bassist Robert Oppelt (b. 1961) currently holds the post of principal bass with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. He was originally invited to join the orchestra by Mstislav Rostropovich in 1982, subsequently being promoted to his current position in 1996. The present CD, released in December of 2006, is his first solo outing on disc; it makes for an impressive showcase for his talents.
Unusual, but refreshing for a program of this nature, is that five of the six works offered are not transcriptions, having actually been written by their respective composers for the double bass. Only the Debussy is a reduction from its orchestral scoring to a chamber-sized ensemble of a string quintet with its original part for harp intact. That is not all that is unusual, however, about this production. The last two pages of the enclosed booklet speak of Oppelt’s father, Robert L., who died in 2001 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and of the many notables—including Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dmitri Shostakovich—who also suffered from the incurable illness. Son Robert is donating 25 percent of the net proceeds from the sales of the CD to the ALS Association, whose Web site, www.alsinfo.org, is promoting the disc.
Now to the music. Domenico Dragonetti (1763–1846) has been called “the Paganini of the bass;” though considering that Paganini was born almost 20 years later (1782), it would be more chronologically appropriate to call Paganini “the Dragonetti of the violin.” In any case, Dragonetti toured throughout Europe, astonishing audiences with his virtuosity on an instrument believed by many to be unwieldy and incapable of such agility. Given the near non-existence of repertoire for the double bass at the time, Dragonetti composed his own works, most of which, not surprisingly, were designed as display vehicles for his remarkable technical prowess. The Six Waltzes for solo bass are not particularly tuneful or even waltz-like, sounding more like advanced exercises (rapid scale runs, string-crossing arpeggios, ricochet bowings, etc.); but they will give you an idea of how far and how hard Dragonetti pushed bass technique.
Dragonetti settled in London, and it was there in 1824 that David Salomons (of Haydn concerts fame) commissioned Rossini to write the Duetto for Cello and Double Bass which, it is said, Rossini and Dragonetti played together at one of Salomons’s soirees. The manuscript resurfaced in 1968 among the possessions of Salomons’s descendants. The piece is a delight. The cello throws pearls of melody before the bass, which picks them up and promptly imitates them, sometimes with deliberate humorous clumsiness, and other times, with equal humor, turns them into manic virtuosic flights.
Danses sacrèe et profane
here takes on an intimacy in its scaled-down-to-victory-garden-size version that clarifies the individual lines. What is sacrificed, of course, is the overgrown canopy of the orchestral forest.
My introduction to the music of Gunther Schuller (b. 1925) came via a Mercury LP (which I still have) of the
Seven Studies on a Theme of Paul Klee
, with Antal Dorati conducting the Minneapolis Symphony. I love that piece, and everything I’ve heard by Schuller since reminds me of it, including his Quartet for double basses on the present disc. His is a style that unites elements of the Second Viennese School, Stravinsky, and jazz in a kind of angular and disconcerting vertigo that can rapidly change from the giddy to the grotesque. The Quartet is a serious work in three movements, of which, along with the aforementioned
, a couple of competing recordings exist. I’ve heard the one on the GM label with bassist Robert Gladstone and colleagues, and it’s finely played; but the present entry from Oppelt and company seems to me to have a stronger affinity for Schuller’s personal brand of musical kinkiness.
Charles Barnett (b. 1951) may be known to readers who recognize his name mainly as a composer for TV and film productions:
Saturday Night Live, The Cosby Show, Third Rock from the Sun
, and the Discovery Channel’s
Raising the Mammoth
, and his Emmy nominated
Holocaust: The Untold Story
. His Serenade for Double Bass, Harp, and String Quartet deploys the same instrumentation as the foregoing Debussy reduction; but its title makes clear that the bass in Barnett’s composition is not the substratum of a string quintet, but rather the first instrument in order of importance. While it would be elitist and patronizing to say that Barnett is really good at what he does best—writing soundtracks for television—it cannot be denied that there is a glitzy surface slickness to this Serenade that gives it that comfy “commercial art” feeling. For sheer prettiness, though, the piece is likely to have the most immediate appeal of all the items on the disc.
Featured bassist Oppelt makes a brief appearance in the guise of composer in the
Pas de deux
for flute and double bass, a piece that conjures the imagery, both visual and aural, of an arabesque for ballerina and dancing bear.
I’m not sure the appeal of this CD will be to a wide audience; but it is superbly executed by a crew of fine musicians and presented in an atmospheric and well-balanced recording. Recommended then to those whose musical interests and tastes lie in this direction.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins