The secret lyrical life of the double bass

Viennese musician Dominik Wagner surprises with the CD Chapters, entirely dedicated to the giant among string instruments – the double bass. Together with pianist Lauma Skride, he presents a choice of 14 tantalising pieces, ranging from Schubert and Ravel, through Fauré and Boulanger to Richter, Glass and, yes, Charles Chaplin.

In the symphony orchestra, the double bass is the largest string instrument with the lowest register. The history of the double bass is bipolar: on the one hand, it is part of the violin family but also the viola da gamba. An added complication that the bass is not standardised, there are versions with 3, 4 (common) and 5 strings. The double bass is best known for its rhythmic and harmonic role in the symphony orchestra. The low register implies that all other instruments populate the higher regions. So for a rich and warm orchestral sound, the double bass is the way to go.

By double bassist and composer Peteris Vasks, Wagner and Skride recorded an arrangement of his Andante Cantabile. It is originally from his second cello concerto, but is now allowed to take on a life of its own. Wagner’s interpretation opens up a world of lyricism. After a plaintive intro, the singing voice comes into its own in the higher registers, after which, via a solid piano solo, the long closing motif is floated with attention.
From the minimalist composer Max Richter, who habitually distances himself from well-trodden classical orchestrations, thereby evoking a comforting kind of tension, the piece Mercy (2010) has been selected. It is a plea for compassion and forgiveness, something welcome even in this day and age. Mercy is developed into an extended arpeggio with relatively large leaps within the chords, with Wagner daring to increase the speed. In doing so, that instrument also shows its joyful sides. Franz Schubert is emphatically present with two compositions. In the song Du bist die Ruh, the double bass takes over the vocal, adding a new dimension to the poetic eloquence.

Individual expression

The pieces that have their origins in the art of song are interesting because they mark the transition from the classical period (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven) in which the bass mainly served to double the cello (but an octave lower) to the 19th century when the bass was also used for individual expression. A well-known example of the emancipation of the double bass is the part in the opera Othello (4th act, in which he has to conclude that his wife is cheating on him).
For Ständchen – Reharmonised , the second Schubert piece on the CD, Wagner brought in Berlin pianist and arranger Jarkko Riihimäki. This gives this serenade a dash of jazziness, which noticeably refreshes the listening experience. French composer Clause Debussy makes an appearance with the melancholic song Beau Soir, an interpretation that brings Wagner’s lyricism close to the physicality of the cello.
American regular Jeff Bradetich also makes his presence felt through an arrangement of Fauré’s Elégie. It was originally written for cello but the arrangement for double bass results in a moving tale of heartbreak, with plenty of emotion and warmth. By building the perspective now from the lowest registers, the drama is convincingly propelled. The CD concludes with some evergreens, such as Moon River by Henry Mancini and the theme from Modern Times by Charles Chaplin.

WHAT: Chapters (A Double Bass Story)
WHO: Dominik Wagner (double bass), Lauma Skride (piano)
LABEL: Berlin Classics
RELEASE: 10 March 2023

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