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ClassicsOnline Home » BOTTESINI COLLECTION (The), Vol. 3
Giovanni Bottesini enjoyed a globe-trotting career as “the Paganini of the double bass” but was also an accomplished and respected conductor in Europe. When conducting operas Bottesini would often perform fantasies on the evening’s entertainment during the intermission. Two such fantasies, ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ and ‘Beatrice di Tenda’, are virtuosic tours de force in which the complex double bass figurations mimic the coloratura vocal writing of the day. In keeping with this vocal style, this recording also includes the song Une bouche aimée with double bass obbligato, most likely performed on one of Bottesini’s frequent concert tours with various leading sopranos of the day.
By David Denton
I recall back in the early 1980s that I listened to this disc from Thomas Martin, the principal double bass of the London Symphony, in a mix of awe and amusement. It is the musical equivalent of performing handstands on a tight-rope without a safety net, Giovanni Bottesini having written works that only he could perform so as to keep his audiences spellbound .The story of Bottesini’s father signing the child into the double bass class, when he found that it was one of only two places left at the Milan Conservatory, has oft been told. Never having played the instrument before, and against all the odds, four years later the teenager became the finest exponent of the instrument in Italy. Borrowing money, he bought a fine 3/4‑size instrument that he tuned higher than a conventional bass so as to give added brightness, while the small size of the instrument’s body allowed him to lean over to get high on the fingerboard. Often creating Fantasias using popular melodies from operas of the time, the present disc includes excruciatingly difficult extravaganzas from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda. Two Romanzas, that show the singing aspect of the instrument; a dazzling Introduzione e bolero, and the incredibly difficult Grande Allegro di Concerto, also feature in a well filled disc. In the years since the disc was first issued, double bass players have moved a few rungs up the ladder of virtuosity and security, and my deep admiration of Martin, with his elegant tone, has now to be qualified by pointing to some questionable intonation. Anthony Halstead, better known as a French Horn exponent and conductor, is the pianist, and the soprano, Jacquelyn Fugelle, takes part in Un bouche aimee. The sound speaks of its age.
Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889)
Fantasia ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ • Fantasia ‘Beatrice di Tenda’
Giovanni Bottesini, ‘the Paganini of the double bass’, was born in Crema, Northern Italy, on 22 December 1821 into a family of talented musicians. His own musical education began at the age of five, when he studied violin with an uncle. He also sang as a treble in church choirs and played timpani in several local orchestras. When he was thirteen his father, having learned that there were two scholarship places available at the Milan Conservatory, one for bassoon and the other for double bass, asked him which he would like to apply for. Young Bottesini chose the double bass, not because he already felt a particular attraction for the instrument, but mainly because of his previous knowledge of stringed instruments. During his audition, after only four lessons with Luigi Rossi, he so impressed the jury with his general musicianship that they overlooked his lack of technique; at one point he apologized for playing out of tune but promised this would not happen once he had mastered his fingering.
Thus began Bottesini’s association with the double bass, an association that was to bring him the greatest triumphs of his long and varied career. On leaving the Conservatory in 1839 he was awarded 300 francs which he used, together with 600 francs borrowed from a relative, to purchase the instrument that was to be the companion of his successful concert career. This instrument was made in 1716 by Carlo Antonio Testore and was a 3/4 size Italian double bass tuned one, or one and a half tones higher than the usual orchestral tuning. The three strings were of gut and he used a slightly longer than average French bow.
Bottesini gave his first public concert in Crema in 1839 and in 1840 embarked on a concert tour of Italy with his former fellow-pupil, Luigi Arditi. 1846 found the two friends in Havana and it was here that Bottesini wrote his first opera, Cristoforo Colombo, which was performed with great success. His composing career had begun while still at the Conservatory with a Quartet for Harps in B minor. His operas, and in particular Ero e Leandro and Ali Babà were well-received in his lifetime and his fascination for the human voice can also be seen in his writings for the double bass. Although a recognised composer it was as a virtuoso of the double bass that he was acclaimed in all the cities that he visited, places as far apart as St Petersburg, London, Dublin, Paris, Vienna, Buenos Aires and Boston. He played before most of the crowned heads or Europe, receiving praise from, amongst others, Czar Alexander II, Emperor Napoleon III and Queen Victoria, and everywhere he played his audiences were amazed at the brilliance of his technique. His friendship with Verdi, which had begun in 1844, led the latter to choose him to conduct the first performance of Aida in Cairo and to recommend him for the post of Director of the Conservatory in Parma, a post he accepted just six months before his death in 1889.
© Francesca Franchi
Some of the most beautiful examples of Bottesini’s use of harmonics are contained in the fantasy on Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor, as well as one of his most heroic feats as he attempts the entire “finale” by himself.
Romanza drammatica or Elegia in E minor is typical of Bottesini’s many singing compositions for the double bass and is reminiscent of his melodic writing for the voice.
Introduzione e bolero is a later work by Bottesini. Although he performed it with much success in London and other places, it was surely written for his many visits to Spain where he was popular.
Bottesini wrote a large number of songs of all descriptions in his native Italian as well as French, English and Spanish. Une bouche aimée is one of several which include an obbligato for himself. He went off on countless tours with ‘concert parties’ of artists, often including the leading sopranos of his day such as Artot, Sontag, Patti, and Fiorentini. This song probably comes from his tenure in Paris.
Capriccio di bravura is one of Bottesini’s finest compositions for the double bass illustrating as it does both the lyric ‘bel canto’ style and the virtuosity of his technique. It appears in his Touring Collection.
Elégie in D is one of the best known of Bottesini’s compositions for the double bass. He also coupled it on occasion with his famous Tarantella as an extended introduction.
Fantasia ‘Beatrice di Tenda’ is one of a number of fantasias on operatic themes which Bottesini wrote and performed with such success. These fantasies were mostly on themes from works by Donizetti and Bellini, whose operatic style so influenced his writing. This fantasia on Bellini’s opera is one of the most beautiful of Bottesini’s fantasies.
Although Bellini was perhaps the greatest influence on Bottesini’s composing style, in later years he was also greatly influenced by Mendlessohn and the Grande Allegro di Concerto is a reflection of his style. The harmonic content of the compositional style stretches the double bass to its absolute pyrotechnic limits.
Sung texts and English translations can be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/570399.htm
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