Dedication Duncan McTier and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Commissioned by Strathclyde Regional Council and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Double bass solo, 2 flutes (+ 2nd alto flute), 2 oboes (+ 2nd cor anglais), clarinet in A, bass clarinet in Bb, 2 bassoons (2nd + contrabassoon), 2 horns, strings
1. Moderato 2. Lento – Allegro
Short Note by Paul Griffiths
Nothing could better demonstrate the increased melodiousness of Davies’s music since the mid-1980s than his success in making even the double bass sing. This is every inch a singing concerto, and one in which the soloist is nearly always the singer: only at the start of the finale is there a substantial passage for the orchestra alone. The first movement is clearly divided into sonata style periods of exposition, development and reprise, of which the exposition unfolds three melodies (two played first by the bass, the third, slower, initiated by the orchestra) and is confined to the strings. Held minor seconds in horns, oboes and bassoons introduce a new breath, and the ensuing development has the energy of quicker speed, dotted rhythms and more vigorous gestures. The reprise includes a cadenza, party in dialogue with a solo bass from the orchestra. The slow movement is a study for the soloist in harmonics, against a glassy orchestra in which string harmonics are combined with the sounds of quiet flutes and clarinets. The keen spirited finale then has the bass rushing as well as singing.
Extended Note by Stephen Pruslin
In this concerto, Maxwell Davies sets himself a specific and quietly radical brief: although virtuosity and vehemence of expression are very much in evidence, the work addresses itself above all to the double bass’s potential as a melodic instrument capable of sustained legato and cantabile. There is not a single pizzicato anywhere in the solo part, and, apart from the use of harmonics, the concerto explores – and enriches – the possibilities of lyrical and dramatic arco playing.
The first movement begins with a cantilena for the double bass, in which the melodic interval of a third figures prominently. After a virtuosic section, the bass presents a ‘new’ tune, still rich in thirds, against a murmuring accompaniment in the violas. A third idea, presented by the orchestra and then taken up by the soloist, combines the functions of a sonata ‘second subject’ and ‘closing theme’, thereby rounding off the movement’s ‘exposition’, which has been unified by the presence of the orchestral strings alone.
The sudden entry of the horns and woodwind signals the beginning of the ‘development’ section. The virtuosity and tension build steadily until the music releases into a recapitulation of the work’s opening melody, now set against a tremolando accompaniment. This leads directly to the cadenza, which begins with a rhetorical flourish from the soloist and proceeds to an idea marked con fantasia. Now a solo double bass inside the orchestra sings the opening tune and enters into dialogue with the solo bass. The soloist unleashes a display of double-stopping after which the two basses cadence quietly together. A short coda, featuring the second main tune, brings the movement to a close.
The concerto’s second movement is really two movements in one. The Lento slow movement begins with a brief introduction. Then the double bass floats a melody in harmonics, ‘ghosted’ by a single pizzicato cello. The soloist remains in harmonics throughout the movement – here and elsewhere, this is the work’s only ‘special effect’ for the instrument. An interchange between the bass and an alto flute brings the feeling of a ‘middle 8’. The soloist’s song continues against an undertow of dotted rhythms in the orchestral basses until the movement releases into the Allegro. As in Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, the short, concentrated slow movement has been designed as an ‘upbeat’ preparation for the finale.
This begins with an exhilarating formal ‘pun’ in which the tutti/solo double exposition of a classical concerto’s first movement is combined with material of rondo character set into ‘rondo-episode-rondo’ mini-structures. Maxwell Davies thus alludes to the sonata and rondo principles without actually stating either.
After this formal sport, the soloist launches into a new section that leads directly to the cadenza, this time accompanied by a solo cello and two double bass soli. Finally, the solo bass presents the concerto’s opening idea adagio against tremolando tutti strings. From this still centre, the orchestra accelerates to allegro molto, inspiring the soloist to a final flourish that releases the pent-up energy of the previous cadenza and brings the concerto to a swift and open-ended conclusion.
City Halls, Glasgow
Tuesday, 24 November 1992
Scottish Chamber Orchestra