May 22, 2008


Bottesini: Gran Duo Concertante for Violin, Double Bass and Orchestra; Andante Sostenuto for Strings; Duetto for Clarinet and Double Bass; Gran Concerto in F sharp minor. Thomas Martin, double bass; José-Luis Garcia, violin; Emma Johnson, clarinet; English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton. Naxos. $8.99.

Zemlinsky: Three Pieces for Cello and Piano; Sonata in A minor for Cello and Piano; Trio in D minor for Clarinet, Cello and Piano. Othmar Müller, cello; Ernst Ottensamer, clarinet; Christopher Hinterhuber, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

      Giovanni Bottesini and Alexander Zemlinsky are scarcely household names, but both are worthy additions to the current rediscovery of less-known music and composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Bottesini’s work is especially interesting because of its focus on the double bass, on which he was a famed virtuoso. The typical growling low notes of the double bass in its orchestral guise are rarely to be found in Bottesini’s works for this largest string instrument; nor does he use its tone to emphasize a scene of grotesquerie, as Mahler did in the third movement of his First Symphony (1888). Instead, Bottesini treats his chosen instrument as being as capable of virtuosity as any other, resulting in works that, although they occasionally lumber, for the most part show a side of the double bass that never appears in purely orchestral performances. The Gran Duo Concertante, in fact, originally showed a side of two double basses, but one of the two parts was rewritten for violin by Paganini’s disciple, Camillo Sivori, and Bottesini himself subsequently played the work with many famed violinists of his day. There is surprising lightness and grace in the double bass here, and the contrast with the violin is sonically attractive. The Andante Sostenuto for Strings and Duetto for Clarinet and Double Bass are slighter but still pleasant works, the latter reflecting fine clarinet writing (Bottesini’s father was a noted clarinetist). The Gran Concerto in F sharp minor, on the other hand, is big and quite interesting as it moves the double bass into less-familiar keys and treats the orchestra as a full partner of the solo instrument rather than just a backdrop. Thomas Martin plays all the works very well indeed, ably partnered by José-Luis Garcia on violin and Emma Johnson on clarinet, and Andrew Litton leads the English Chamber Orchestra with verve and style.

      Alexander Zemlinsky is better known for operas, songs and orchestral works than for chamber music – which is not to say he is terribly well known at all, although there has been some revival of interest in his music in recent years. The chamber works on the new Naxos CD are all early – the latest, the Trio, dates to 1896, when Zemlinsky was 25 – and they do not show an especially distinctive style. Brahms is the most notable influence here, with the dark hues of the cello – nicely complemented by the clarinet in the Trio – clearly showing Zemlinsky’s debt to the older composer. The Three Pieces for Cello and Piano are slight, but they are nicely animated and lie well on both instruments. The Sonata in A minor is more interesting, showing a greater emotional range and requiring a higher level of technical skill. Its finale has themes that are reminiscent not only of Brahms but also of Dvořák – an interesting juxtaposition. The scoring of the Trio in D minor parallels that of Brahms’ Clarinet Trio of five years earlier and was in fact written after the two composers met, yet here Zemlinsky seems both to be influenced by Brahms and to be looking for ways to move beyond that influence, notably in expressiveness. The performers on the new Naxos CD play as if they care deeply about the music and accept it on its own admittedly imperfect terms – with the result that the performances sound quite committed and very convincing.

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