Second Opinion

By Jukka Isopuro

Helsinki Music Center: Rehearsal Hall Paavo

The acoustics are, in a matter-of-fact way, clear and the tone is a bit on the hard side. Compared, for example, to the Camerata Hall in the same building, the general impression is the same, but the larger volume of the rehearsal hall gives a broader sound. However, the sound lacks warmth and solidity.

The Mussorgsky ensemble of six cellos and four double basses was, at the beginning of the rehearsals, situated in the wide right-hand corner (seen from the entrance) of the hall. The lowest octave of the double basses had too dry a sound. Listened to from farther away, the sound becamea bit juicier but not sufficiently so. Experimentation around the hall with one double bass did not bring any clear improvement elsewhere other than in the front of the long entrance-door wall.  There, outside the orchestra risers, the lowest register of the double bass was brought to life and gained sturdier authority. It is hard to say if the more solid and/or massive floor had an effect on the impression.

Harri Ahmas: Autumn Divertimento, for cello, double bass and harp

The double bass appears to be an unusually equal companion to the cello and harp. It plays same material especially with the cello; it presents themes, frolics wildly and turns rhythmically; it stays active also providing the harmonic foundation. However, what appears straightforward in the score must, in performance reality be interpreted in an exaggerated fashion. Sometimes it is necessary to fortify the attack, emphasize the starts of the slurs, or just play clearly louder than the printed dynamics suggest. As an example of the latter are the pizzicato glissandi starting from the bar 65 of September; or when the accented pizzicato, starting in the bar 27 in October, is especially covered by the harp. Otherwise the harp, despite its bright and distinguishable sound eats the sound of the double bass surprisingly little. Since the harp is plucked, it resembles the piano - which does not compete much for the same sound territory with the double bass; as noticed with the Hindemith sonata in an earlier doctoral concert. The jazzy pizzicati work well with the double bass. The alternating harmonics starting from the bar 40 in October are an elegant choice. Here we again see how the color characteristics of the double bass continue to offer a lot of things worth utilizing.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (arranged for six cellos and four double basses by Ilkka Pälli)

Arrangements always change the original composition; they emphasize different aspects, bring out or lose something. In this arrangement the double bass has to work outside its comfort zone and pull through all of the obstacles the original piano texture presents. As the stout basis of the ensemble harmony, as the source of the powerful lower register and as the producer of certain coloristic effects, the double bass is tailor-made for the atmosphere of this unusual symbolic-naturalistic work.

Together, the ensemble builds a lush sound cathedral. The melodies of Il Vecchio Castello (The Old Castle) are entrusted to two basses and their naturally delicate higher register suitably matches the atmosphere of the movement.  As a melody instrument the double bass succeeds variably. Its sound, especially in the high register, is easily disturbed or covered by other instruments. For example, at the beginning of bar 66 of Gnomus, when the melody is transferred to the four double basses, the focus of the sound weakens so that the descending glissandi of the cellos threaten to roll in and take over.

The melodically expressive power of the double bass is critical:  it may happen like intended, but it may also flag or even get distorted up to comic level. The same concerns the dynamics of the double bass: fortissimo playing in the high register cannot substantially increase the volume, while the sound can turn into a hysterical croaking. Then again, these color characteristics can be exploited; for example, the increasing tremolos played sul ponticello in the bar 21 of Gnomus or in the bar 10 of The Two Polish Jews, which naturally cannot be found in the piano original.  In the Chicks in Their Eggshells, the muted harmonics of the basses actually top the original sound or at least create a fascinating new color. The col legno battuto effect is at its best with the double basses, as in Baba Jaga. The ringing pitch of the string and the snapping noise created by the wood of the bow resonate enjoyably. It is strange that composers haven't rushed in legions to use this sound effect more.