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Can One Have Too Much of the Double Bass?

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Berlin

This past Pentecost weekend—with its national holiday deeded by the Christian past to the godless present—was a blistering one, as if the Holy Ghost were intent on crisping all those disbelievers with his tongues of flame because they were skipping church and heading directly to their grills, beers in hand. I too avoided the houses of god, instead opting to take part in the rituals of Germany’s Art Religion of the 19th century—a pair of concerts in the Philharmonie. In climate-controlled environs, one sits in motionless silence among a vast congregation worshiping the gods of European music as conjured by their contemporary oracles.

On sweltering Friday it was the American pianist Murray Perahia in the large hall of the Philharmonie before a sold-out audience of some 2,000 intensely devoted listeners.  Perahia is this year’s pianist-in-residence with the Berlin Philharmonic, and his duties include chamber music evenings, the Schumann A-Minor piano concerto with the orchestra, and Friday’s solo concert. The program was made up of the acts of the holiest of piano saints: the misty litany of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata; ecstatic visions of Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien (Carnival Jests from Vienna); the sweet prayer of Schubert’s A Major sonata, D664; and the soul-searching plaints of four pieces by Chopin culminating with the devilish difficulties and heavenly raptures of the B-Minor Scherzo.

Before the solemnities began a functionary shuffled onto stage to announce that Mr. Perahia would be adding Bach’s Fifth French Suite to the beginning of the program in a sort of pre-emptive encore that fittingly allowed the great prophet of the 18th century to commune with the saints of the 19th.

Out came the Perahia himself with his small steps, ramrod posture, and grave countenance. His is the austere stage presence of many former grand virtuosos active before the age of smiles. The Philharmonie seats encircle the stage, and in the middle stretches the Steinway, as long and as shiny as a classic Rolls-Royce. Not one for the deep bow, Perahia nods slightly in all directions before launching into the liturgy.

About a decade ago Perahia won a Grammy for his recording of some of the English Suites and his Goldberg Variations are said by his press blurb to be definitive. The suites are made of dances in binary form: a first half that is repeated, followed by a second half that is also repeated. The point of the repeat is to add ornaments, with their number, shape, and divergence from what was written by Bach to be determined by the good taste and imagination of the performer.  Without these individual alterations, be they slight or significant, the repetition of each half becomes weighted down by what begins to seem like an obligation rather than an opportunity.  Perahia is not much of an ornament maker, perhaps as a result of the fact that concert pianists are required to play from memory.  Ironically perhaps, having the score in front of you on the music desk can allow more spontaneous elaboration, both minimal and occasionally—at just the right moments—lavish.  Perahia did break out some glittering runs in the repeats of the insouciant Bourée, though these rare flashes only pointed to the lack of invention in the other dances, especially in the elegiac Sarabande, where one figure turned upside down can render a passage in a completely different light. Bach is in every way a “deep” composer and it was for this profundity that he was worshipped by his 19th-century epigones. But Bach was also superficial in the best sense, a master of the elegant alteration, the mordant inflection. These courtly touches are what is missing from Perahia’s admirable Bach playing. Bach was not only admired for his rigor, but for his wit and spontaneity as well.

It was in the program’s densely notated masterpieces of the nineteenth century, works that were conceived to evoke improvisations (and sometimes derived from them), that Perahia found more expressive freedom.  The “Moonlight” sonata is marked “quasi una fantasia,” but the famous opening movement is one of stately introspection rather than of fire, not to mention brimstone—though Perahia gave us plenty of both in the Presto agitato third movement Finale.  The gravity of his first movement made the contrast to the explosiveness of the last all the more compelling.

Perahia also brilliantly characterized the diverse characters flashing through the Carnival Jest. Perahia has an excellyent sense of timing; he knows when to linger at a phrase-end and when to move on without looking back. Another lesson to be learned from Perahia is how not to give everything away too early. In the recurring fanfare theme of the first movement of the Schumann the opening statement had plenty of volume and conviction, but he saved his full power for the final iteration. Perahia can wring massive sonorities from the high-strung altar that is his Steinway, but his playing is never harsh.

In the Schubert Perahia cherished the moments of poignant tenderness before he plunged into the pathos and passion of the Chopin. Perahia makes the hurtling arpeggios and slashing double octaves less a demonstration of technical might than of restive emotion: he seems far more interested in finding meaning and expressive possibility in the music than in drawing attention to his own gifts.

After the Pentecostal sausages and beers of the weekend, Tuesday night found me in the Chamber Music Hall adjoining the large hall where Perahia had played on Friday. The small hall was built a quarter century later yet blends perfectly with the original structure even while remaining proud of its unique traits, such as the jutting loges high up in the space.

The evening’s program was centered around the young Venezuelan double bass player, Edicson Ruiz, since 2003 a member of the Berlin Philharmonic. He won a position in this greatest of orchestras at the astoundingly young age of seventeen, having taken up the bass only six years earlier in the context of the children’s music and education program in Venezuela known as El Sistema.

What one senses not only in Ruiz’s buoyant personality but also in every note he draws from his dark, warmly varnished bass is his love of music. There is brimming energy, impulse, and direction to the bass-lines he provided for the two trio sonatas by J. S. Bach’s contemporary and colleague, J. D. Zelenka, himself a bassist in 18th-century Europe’s greatest orchestra at the Dresden court. When Ruiz plays Zelenka you are walking, and occasionally running, with purpose through a constantly shifting landscape: under Ruiz’s bow the predictable patterns of baroque music hold the listener’s attention as much as the swerves into the unexpected. But these are extended itineraries: Zelenka’s trios must be the longest of the baroque, running to a good twenty minutes over their four movements.  In these invigorating excursions Ruiz was joined by colleagues from the Berliner Philharmonic: english horn player, Dominik Wollenweber; bassoonist, Stefan Schweigert; oboist, Jonathan Kelly; along with one of Berlin’s best harpsichord and fortepiano players, Raphael Alpermann.

Between the Zelenka sonatas came modern solos performed by the various members of this ensemble. In Gotthard Odermatt’s Five Miniatures, a work commissioned by Schweigert himself, the bassoonist delighted not only with the speed and exuberance of his passagework, but also with the way he shaped and caressed the long notes. In such a master’s care, nothing is more beautiful than a bassoon. Except perhaps an English horn—at least as played by Wollenweber in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s In Friendship, a comic romp full of irreverent blasts, impudent warblings, taunting laughs. Wollenweber pointed the bell of his instrument at various sections of the in-the-round audience to mark out registral differentiations in the music, and he moved around the stage, even tracing a complete turn for one soaring tone—this choreography making up for the lack of the dancer that had been part of Stockhausen’s original concept. Oboist Kelly brought off Heinz Holliger’s solo sonata with sparkling verve—the piece’s modernist discourse and sometimes troubled perplexity enlivened by Kelly’s radiant musicality and love of whimsy.

It was a great evening for the double reed family.

The biggest solo contribution however came from the irrepressible Ruiz. With Alpermann urging him on at the fortepiano, Ruiz romped through a Classic concerto by Johann Matthias Sperger, an Austrian virtuoso of the double bass who spent most of his life in north Germany with a number of years in Berlin.  After the intermission and Kelly’s inspired performance of the Holliger sonata came three world premieres for solo bass.  It was an exhibition of all the tricks of the modernist trade: electronic accompaniment; mallets on the strings; harmonics and false harmonics; the back of the bow; pluckings, thumpings and scratchings. The best of this trio of commissions was Dai Fujkura,’s Scarlet Ibis with its whispered harmonics, shadowy silences, and phantomy echoes. It was also the shortest of the bass solos, and by the time we came to the second Zelenka sonata to close the program we were already two-and-a-half hours into the concert that reached nearly three when the last clap had been clapped.

One can hardly blame Ruiz for seizing the chance to give his audience more double bass music than even they had bargained for. How often does a double bassist, even one as beloved as Ruiz is in Berlin, get this kind of opportunity to plan and perform a fascinating program such as this one with such illustrious companions in such a welcoming space?

Ruiz makes the bass not only sing, but also speak. And in his hands its voice is not only grandfatherly but also bright, mournful, irreverent, and many other things as well. But as one is stuck to the seat and watches the bassist dance spiritedly with his instrument, one begins to think that too much of even something as good as Ruiz’s playing begins to become a bit of a burden. Playing starts to sound like preaching.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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