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Hans Werner HENZE (1926-2012)
San Biagio 9 Agosto ore 12.07 (1977) [7:15]
Concerto per contrabbasso ed orchestra (1966) [29:07]
Serenade (1949) [8:13]
Trauer-Ode (1997) [7:37]
Daniele Roccato (double bass), Orchestra Sinfonica Abruzzese/Tonino Battista, Ludus Gravis
rec. 2015-2019, Auditorium del Colle, Piediluco; Auditorium del Parco, L’Aquila; Teatro ‘Filippo Marchetti’, Camerino, Italy
WERGO WER73912 [52:11]

I was greatly intrigued by Daniele Roccato and the Ludus Gravis ensemble in their ECM recording of works for double bass by Stefano Scodanibbio (review), and so the prospect of a new recording of works by Hans Werner Henze for double bass from the same musicians had immediate attraction.

Roccato writes of his meetings with Henze and the genesis of the double bass version of the Trauer-Ode, and his affinity with this music is palpable from the outset. San Biagio 9 Agosto ore 12.07 is quite a lyrical piece for double bass solo and, while there are technically complex gestures here and there, and some moments of drama, this is largely reflective, almost introverted music. The performance here is done in concert (solo) tuning, a tone above that usually found in the orchestral double bass – a version that goes against the instructions in the score but was allowed for Roccato by the composer.

For double bass players, the Concerto “has been wrapped in a legendary aura. Everybody had a copy of the solo part, though few left it on the stand for more than an hour a year, and almost no-one dared to attempt a performance.” Early performances simplified certain passages that were considered unplayable, but the original version is now within the reach of the newer generations of players. Gary Karr’s recording on Deutsche Grammophon was conducted by the composer, and has for many years been the only reference for this work. We are told that Karr in fact made only a few changes, but technically Roccato’s is the premiere recording of the original version. Karr’s playing is exceptional, and his expressive vibrato at times turns the bass into something as light as a cello, but Roccato’s intonation is superior and the confident playing of the Orchestra Sinfonica Abruzzese makes the work sound less exploratory and experimental. This is uncompromising music, but is as rewarding as it is challenging. Henze himself wrote that “the first movement is a kind of song, the second one is a burlesque, and the last one a Chaconne. I have imagined the double bass expressing feelings and dreams of a faun in a southern European landscape. His moods are erotic but also light-hearted and sometimes funny.” Reading of Roccato’s gradual opening out of his technique to adapt to the demands of the score leads me to imagine this can perhaps be applied to its appreciation as a listener. If you furrow your brow and worry about it you might get a headache, but if you relax and allow it to roll over you, allowing its abstractions and its complex textures and narrative to make their own way in your imagination, then similar revelations might occur.

Serenade was originally written for the cello, but works very well on the double bass, especially when played as well as it is here. This is a piece in nine short movements comparable in some ways to a baroque suite, with a Menuett by way of a conclusion, but with movements such as a nervy Tango in between. Trauer-Ode or ‘Mourning-Ode’ was originally written for six cellos, and Henze was initially against Roccato’s adaptation for six double basses. Ensemble Ludus Gravis eventually turned up at his villa, and after running the piece through a couple of times the composer was smiling and convinced, wetting the project’s head with wine and having the version added to his list of published works. The new version was initially prepared as part of a theatre project, and the piece does have considerable dramatic impact. The instruments growl and sing, meeting at times in confluence and beauty, and at others talking or arguing amongst each other like animated musical sculptures.

Daniele Roccato is a force to be reckoned with in the music world in general but in that of the double bass in particular. You might expect an entire programme of modern double bass music to leave an impression of darkness, and indeed the final Trauer-Ode isn’t one to bring out to dispel gloom, but with technical brilliance of this kind on any instrument this kind of well-produced recording lifts one’s spirits in admiration, and when you get to know it Henze’s music need not be as scarily avant-garde as you might have imagined.

Dominy Clements

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