Enchanting double bass recital with a little cello too, at Lower Hutt

J S Bach’s Sonata for Viola da gamba No 2 in D, BWV 1028;
Cello Concerto No 4, third movement (Goltermann);
Fauré: Elegie;
Bottesini: Fantasia on themes from La sonnambula

Alexander Gunchenko (double bass) and Kirsten Simpson (piano), and Daniel Gunchenko (cello)

St Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 22 August, 12.15pm

The double bass is among the orchestral instruments that has struggled to find a respected place in the solo sphere; a bit like the bassoon, its role is sometimes regarded as that of musical comedian.

Yet it’s had at least one famous practitioner, both a virtuoso and a composer (also a conductor who premiered Verdi’s Aida in Cairo), Giovanni Bottesini.

Alexander Gunchenko is one of the contingent of musicians from Ukraine and Russia who were recruited by the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s, and helped raise its standard so dramatically.

Gunchenko, who had only recently left the Tchaikovsky Conservatorium (presumably the one in Kiev) and had a short spell with the Ukraine National Chamber Orchestra, came to New Zealand in 1999. There he continued his studies at Canterbury University; and in 2007 joined the NZSO.

I gather he has been appearing for the Hutt Valley lunchtime concerts annually over the last few years, but this was my first hearing.

Music for the cello and its earlier predecessors can readily be transcribed for the double bass, and the recital began with a sonata for viola da gamba by J S Bach (No 2 in D, BWV1028). Though the bass (which is in fact a descendant of the viola da gamba family, and not a member of the violin family) is not as strongly projecting as the cello which replaced the viola da gamba during the late 17th and early 18th century, it had its own quieter and more mellow sound which has come to be appreciated again in recent times.

That made playing by the bass particularly attractive, for its quietness, once the ears were accustomed to it, gave the music a beauty and refinement that is actually Bach would have had in mind in writing these sonatas. (Accompaniment by a harpsichord would of course have been more appropriate, though Kirsten Simpson’s partnership was always sensitive to the bass’s sound).

The opening Adagio movement was a lovely, if momentarily nervous in intonation, way to engage the mind and accustom the ear. True, the piano did tend to weigh a bit heavily on the bass in the second, Allegro, movement, but the playing was so fluent and genial, enveloping us in its long, nicely expressed phrases, that any dynamic imbalance didn’t matter.

And the next slow movement, now in a slow triple time, was a further demonstration of the bass’s lyrical character, no matter that it was mostly in the low baritone range. Where the notes do go higher, however, it was even more beautifully mellow than a cello could ever be (and I learned and love the cello).

The next item was something a bit special: The young Gunchenko, the 11-year-old Daniel, a cellist who has just completed Grade 5 with, I imagine, rather high marks; his appearance was unadvertised, but a very engaging idea. I too encountered Georg Goltermann’s fourth cello concerto (his dates 1824 – 1898, almost exact contemporary with Bruckner) when I was a student but, somewhat older, I certainly wasn’t getting around the music as fluently as young Daniel did. There are probably good reasons why the name isn’t on everyone’s lips, but this taste of one of his concertos would have made the audience wonder about that. The third movement – the last I imagine – was a tarantella, fast and very rhythmic; the two musicians maintained its pace and togetherness admirably.

Alexander returned to play another cello classic, Fauré’s Élégie. Here, one could easily have been seduced into never wanting to hear it on the cello again, so discreet and, well, elegiac was this performance. The oneness of the two was clearly evident when the piano took over the melody and the bass simply kept it company in warm,  supportive accompanying figures.

The party piece was Bottesini’s Fantasia on themes from La sonnambula, a typical 19th century show-piece that gave audiences the comfort of well-known tunes clothed in unbelievably virtuosic playing. If it looks hard for a violinist to race about the fingerboard in such music, the same behaviour on a much longer fingerboard, with greater difficulty in hitting the exact note, including a lot of high harmonics, was a somewhat breathtaking exhibition.



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