Masterclass: Christine Hoock on Vanhal Double Bass Concerto

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In our August 2016 issue, double bassist Christine Hoock emphasises serenity, clarity and flow, and the importance of preparation when tackling the first movement of this overtly Classical piece

Hoock playing a

For me, Vanhal’s Concerto will always be a ‘youthful’ piece. I learnt it while studying in Frankfurt, where I performed it with my university orchestra. It’s a sparkling work, with clear melodies, positive energy, a beautiful Adagio, virtuoso passages and opportunities to create individual cadenzas.

We are lucky that Vanhal was inspired to write a double bass concerto. Bassists such as Kämpfer, Pischelberger and Sperger were creating a sort of double-bass-solo boom in Vienna, and it may have been his acquaintance with Dittersdorf, or inspiration from Sperger, that led to Vanhal composing his concerto between 1786 and 1789. The only preserved duplicate of the manuscript is in Sperger’s hand and is part of Sperger’s archive – now housed at the Landesbibliothek in Schwerin, Germany.

The ‘ideal’ tuning

Sperger’s manuscript copy contains many additional 8va indications. The concerto was originally written in D major for a double bass with Viennese tuning (A1–D–F#–A). In this tuning, every note is conveniently playable; open strings and harmonics aid the natural, swinging, joyful tone of the concerto. Most Classical double bass concertos were written in D but performed in E flat. At that time it was common practice to tune the bass one semitone higher for solo performance, so that while the bass still had the open strings, the orchestra had to accompany in the duller-sounding key of E flat. This gave the bass more power and a more brilliant, relaxed and natural sound that would project over the orchestra.

Nowadays we can play the concerto in any of the following ways: on an original instrument and period strings, in E flat; on a modern instrument in the key of C (sounding D) for solo tuning; in D, sounding D, with orchestra strings; sounding in E, with solo strings; or sounding E flat, with high-tuned orchestra strings or low-tuned solo strings.

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