by Jukka Isopuro
Sibelius Academy Concert Hall
It's a good old-time shoebox hall. Having since got used to the new Helsinki Music Center concert halls, it is startling how the traditional hall strengthens the sound produced onstage, almost excessively. Bare, smooth and parallel surfaces luckily don't make the hall sound too reverberant. However, there is a hint of hardness in the echo. The seats in the auditorium are of a rather light structure, open from underneath, and therefore they don't absorb the sound too much. The ceiling above the stage was tilted in the renovation carried out two decades ago, causing now an excessive projection of direct sound, almost a shooting effect. However, the passage of time makes the comparison with earlier, possibly better circumstances unreliable.
Listened from the parterre, clearly lower than the stage, the proportion of the reverberation is greater, diminishing the clarity and increasing the hardness. The best seats are on the first balcony. The sound becomes suitably warm and soft, even a bit silky – provided the music also has the quality. Yet, with some music the sound can feel too strong and bounce disturbingly from the side walls and the ceiling. The cure for the phenomenon can be found in the back rows of the first balcony, where the second balcony above cuts out the excessive hardness and reverberation. On the second balcony the clarity and the proportion of the direct sound increase notably, causing the sound to lose its warmth and roundness.
The observations made above concern string ensembles. The hall is very even for the sound of the double bass. As listened on the stage there is a suitable attack, a grind on the strings and a ring of the overtones. Pizzicati gain a springy character which carries them well to the audience, but they also decline rather soon over the length of the hall. The booming and hefty character of the double bass's sound muffles the graphic elements of the ring, although rather evenly and without exaggeration. The overall audibility and sound color remain quite even throughout the hall.
The violin and double bass duo turns out to be a splendid and well-functioning ensemble with good sound dimensions. The sound registers, well apart from each other, are in no danger of clashing and the overall ring is consistent and relaxed. The rhythmic potential of the double bass is well exploited in the direction of percussion, as in the use of the pounding of the open strings. The harmonics, the high-climbing melodies against the tremolo chords of the violin and the tight pizzicati bring color and suspense. All in all, the double bass is a rich and highly individual sound source when its characteristics are utilized in the company of its more nimble siblings.
The string sonata by the 12-year-old Rossini, with its original instrumentation for two violins, violoncello and double bass, surprises by giving the bass natural melodic independence and its own timbral space. Already in the bar 16, the double bass begins varying the opening motive in dialogue with a violin, without making the listener nervous about how the jumbo of the string family will manage when allowed to romp as an equal with its more agile relatives. In the absence of a viola the cello partly patches up the missing sound register and thereby stays away from the sound territory of the double bass. The cello and the double bass do handle the bass line together, but there is rather little actual doubling. The overall impression is fresh and airy.
Dvořak gives the double bass versatile, fast, virtuosic and rhythmic material. But, in the work as whole, the bass gets the leading role only in just two bars of the third movement, and even then with only faint quavers. In the speedier turns the double bass is attached to the cello with a safety harness - they play in unison. This results in a compromise when the wiriness and the penetrability of its sound and on the other hand the slow ignitability and the hefty bass-ness on the other pull in different directions. Otherwise the double bass is given a diverse supporting role taking care of the rhythm and the harmony together and separately. On the level of sound color, the double bass is not allowed much independence but it supports the general ensemble sound. The imposing sound and lingering sound aftermath of the double bass blur the clarity of the big tutti chords. In drier acoustics, the impression might be clearer. As a whole, Dvořak's string quintet feels like an advance in the way of the independence of the double bass in chamber music, although in the sounding reality the old subordinating rhythmic-harmonic bounds prove still rather strong.