Meyer, Bottesini: Concertos / Edgar Meyer, Bell, Ma

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Composer and double bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer managed to greatly distress several critics at the venerable Gramophone with his violin concerto written for Hilary Hahn, which she coupled with the Barber concerto (which was sniffed at itself, not all that long ago, before its elevation to international masterpiece). I can only imagine what the present release will do for their tender sensibilities, but I loved it. His Double Concerto for Cello and Double Bass is a marvelous work. Although the specific antecedent for the piece is Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, the music has much more in common with the famous double concerto of Brahms. Indeed the striding main theme of the first movement is almost as if it were by Brahms after he had encountered some pretty virtuoso blue-grass fiddling. The second movement is essentially a rondo, deploying the soloists in a series of duets, some slow and some quicker, interspersed with a rushing, frantic scherzo refrain for the full orchestra. The third is explicitly modeled structurally on the rondo of the Mozart work. The sense that all the melodies remember when they were folk tunes pervades the entire work. I liked it immensely the first time I listened to the disc and subsequent hearings have only increased my affection for it.

David K. Nelson, writing in 23:6 about the Violin Concerto, commented that Meyer’s music always sounds American without pandering to any of his popular influences from jazz to bluegrass. The different musics of the Double Bass Concerto in D are perhaps less integrated than in the Double Concerto but it is a lovely work. There is a quality to Meyer’s writing for strings that recalls (without, as Nelson said, actually quoting) American fiddle music that is immensely appealing. Meyer is also extremely good at keeping his low-voiced solo instruments front and center within a very colorful orchestral framework.

Bottesini is, of course, the major composer of music for the double bass of the 19th century, and both these works have been recorded fairly frequently. Bottesini essentially turned the double bass into a slightly lower equivalent of the cello, and given Meyer’s exceptionally fluid playing one would, I think, be hard pressed to be sure exactly which instrument he is playing—at least until he hits notes below the compass of the cello. Not that it is especially pressing, given the display orientation of this relatively minor music, but neither work is heard in genuinely authentic form here. In the Grand Duo concertant, the original second double bass is replaced by a violin in a period arrangement that dates from shortly after the work’s composition. In the Concerto No. 2 Meyer continues to play his replacement cadenzas (written as a precocious twenty-year old composer virtuoso to show off just what he could make his unwieldy instrument do); they are wildly out of style with the rest of the music.

Given the quality of the soloists, brilliantly abetted by the work of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under Hugh Wolf and the remarkably clear recorded sound, it almost goes without saying that the performances are extraordinary. If not perhaps the most profound music I have ever heard, it is nevertheless enormously entertaining. Firmly recommended.

-- John Story, FANFARE [9/2002]

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: SONY56148

  • UPC: 886975614820

  • Label: Sony

  • Composer: Edgar Meyer, Giovanni Bottesini

  • Conductor: Hugh Wolff

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

  • Performer: Edgar Meyer, Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma