by Jukka Isopuro
Impressions from the rehearsals at Sibelius Hall, April 4. and 6. 2011
About the sound elements of the double bass:
- The ringing base tone is warm, sturdy and big especially on the basis of space impression but surprisingly also power.
- The overtones give the base note nuances and draw the outlines.
- Noisy attacks and abrasive sounds.
- Relatively slow ignitability, the time difference between the attack and ringing tone.
- Weak direction projection - the bass sound waves travel radially to all directions.
- In the lowest register (E1 app. 41 Hz, C2 32.7 Hz) vibration of the string begins to be felt physically, though individual waves cannot be detected.
- In low register overtones and attack sound are more apart from base tone than with other string instruments.
Interestingly in order to fully stand out, stout bass sound needs an element of treble range. In orchestral music it is clearly heard when the low C2 is played by double bass section alone and when the cello octave is added on the top of it. In the latter case basses actually sound deeper when supported by the overtones of upper octave of celli.
The overtones of the double bass are relatively weak (caused by the gap in the sound spectrum) and therefore the sound of the double bass is easily nasal, covered and hoarse.
In Sibelius Hall the sound elements 1-3 were surprisingly audible. The presence was good, the sound was muscular and outlined clearly. Therefore it was surprising how easily the other instruments covered the bass sound. Very easily the other instruments wiped out the sound the elements 2-3 leaving only the round bass element, which is rather hard to locate audibly. The covering effect was not dependent on the volume of the instruments. Clarinet carried very easily to the hall but the covering effect was not bigger than with viola that could steal the elements 2-3 from bass.
Generally: the whole sound spectrum of the double bass can be easily be covered even by soft sounding higher registered instruments. Covering effect of bassoon was clearly the weakest.
Beethoven: Septet op. 20.
The problems mentioned were least disturbing in Beethoven. In fact the role of the double bass is throughout the piece very natural and stays in traditional doubling or as the basis for harmony. Pitch of the notes in the lowest register is hard to detect especially in the fast passages. The pizzicati sounded at least in the beginning of the rehearsals too soft and round perhaps because the bass in turn covered the snappy noise sounds of viola and cello. One of the most important roles of the double bass in Beethoven Septet is balancing the ensemble against the winds. Cello alone could not survive as well. In the Trio of V movement, beginning from the bar 97, descending bass line with bassoon needs to be played boldly bringing out the distinctive bass sphere with the strong vibration of the heavy string.
Nielsen: Serenata in vano.
The piece is way more unusual case. Nielsen would have had a chance to bring out more characteristic qualities of the double bass. There would be a spot to come briskly out already in the staccato fourths in the beginning for they tolerate rather rough touch. An obvious choice is to play the e flat beginning in the bar 123 an octave lower. The small bass solo passage from bar is obviously nuanced too soft and should be played with clearly articulated slurs and strong enough in order to bring out the full sound spectrum of the double bass. In the very ending of the piece the pesante character should be exaggerated as much as possible.
The conventional criteria of the role of double bass don't concern this piece of music. It has passages where the small ensemble creates a surprisingly true impression of the original orchestral sound. On the other hand in some spots the effect is amusingly feeble for example when bassoon and double bass have to imitate the full storm of lower brass. All this certainly suits this fast forward miniature.
About Sibelius Hall acoustics
Memory of hearing is sadly short. Anyway I now got a more favorable impression of the Sibelius Hall acoustics than during several orchestra concerts earlier. The biggest surprise was the relative brightness of the sound heard from lower parterre. Earlier I had felt the overtone glimmer of violins and flutes disappearing somewhere. I also noticed that the acoustic fine tuning during the rehearsals improved the sound considerably. Blurring reverberation diminished, the sound became more solid and presence got better also further back in the hall without reducing richness and the overall ring. Around g I suspected a standing wave (see Terminology) in the hall but the effect could have been caused by a known wolf tone of this particular double bass. The last rows of the lower parterre have a direct reflection problem. The horse shoe shaped upper parterre riser wall around creates a concave surface giving random, direct reflections to some seats at the level of the stage.
Summary of the role of the double bass
As much as the score, phrasing etc. allow one could try to emphasize the percussive sound elements of the bass and possibly compensate the inertia of the thick strings by slight head starts.