MEYER:  Double Concerto for Cello and Double Bass.  Concerto in D for Double Bass and Orchestra.  BOTTESINI:  Concerto No. 2 in B minor for Double Bass and Orchestra.  Gran Duo Concertante.
Edgar Meyer, double bass; Yo Yo Ma, cello; Jochua Bell, violin; Saint Paul Chamber Orch/Hugh Wolff, cond.
SONY CLASSICAL SK 60956 (F) (DDD) TT:  67:16

I'm a bit nonplussed. Edgar Meyer is undoubtedly one of the top two bass players in the world. I've had the good fortune to hear him perform live, an astonishing musician. I can't even begin to tell you all the feats he performed in one jaw-dropping encore - just him and his bass. I felt I was at a bullfight and wanted to shout "OlÈ!" at every particularly graceful pass or unpredictable wonder. However, Meyer also composes, and at more than a merely-competent level. This isn't the case of, say, Koussevitzky providing repertoire for his instrument or a performer indulging his vanity. Meyer even has his own voice, or at least his own sound or compositional take on things. He is, indeed, a real composer, as opposed to a duffer. The listener doesn't have to make allowances for him.

The idiom stems from neoclassic American modernism, a favorite of mine (think Copland and Piston), with inspiration from various vernacular sources, like "roots" music and, occasionally, jazz. In its sense of time and phrase, Meyer's music more resembles American works before World War II than after it. He orchestrates lean and mean; the sound reminds me a lot of Britten, without actual appropriation. All that said, his music only occasionally speaks to me. There's a gorgeous violin concerto, written for Hilary Hahn, but the works here don't come up to that one. I want to like these concerti a lot more and wonder why I don't. The mind that produced them interests me a great deal.

I think, for me, when Meyer's music doesn't work, it usually comes down to a failure of or lack of concern for drama. There are highly imaginative passages in both works on this CD and some very dull ones, where the music seems merely to mark time. Perhaps the harmony or thematic treatment simply doesn't change fast enough to suit me. At any rate, I occasionally find myself wanting more contrast. Of the two Meyer works here, I prefer the double concerto for cello and bass -- less of what seems to me noodling. Meyer reveals Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola as the inspiring source, and one can discover several connections to that work in this one, but they link at a highly abstract level. Apart from one small quotation (which you can easily miss), Meyer makes it up all on his own.

One notices, however, distressingly similar ideas in Meyer's two concerti, chief of which is a downward bluesy slide in their respective opening movements. This, at least, shows poor programming on Sony's part and does Meyer no good at all.

But I feel like a grinch when I point any of this out. The performances carry off all objections. Ma, of course, plays his instrument very well indeed. However, Meyer has such command over the color of his instrument and has eliminated so much of the fuzz and buzz from the usual sound of the bass that often you can't tell, for example, between him and Ma. Furthermore, the concerto itself, at its best, has a quirky poetry. One of my favorite moments comes deep in the second movement (not a conventional slow movement): a jazzy duet between the solo cello and the pizzicato bass. The finale, for me the best of the three, takes off on bluegrass fiddle music, among other things, but again at a certain level of abstraction. The main idea, with its insistence on the tonic chord and its strong rhythmic pulse, may even remind you a bit of the opening bars of Tippett's second symphony.

I heard Meyer do his double-bass concerto live. Truth to tell, it didn't do much for me then, but I had also recently heard David Anderson's concerto, to me the finest for the instrument -- an authentic musical argument, rather than a simple bag of tricks. Meyer has performed Anderson's work at least once (I believe with the Philadelphia) and ought to record it. At any rate, Meyer's own concerto, while no mere excuse to get up in front of an orchestra, doesn't completely escape the curse of the bag o' tricks. The first movement seems to end in the middle of nothing, in itself not necessarily bad, but it does fail to convince or to sum things up. On the other hand, there are some gorgeous passages -- notably, the first orchestral tutti in the opening movement and a pointillist gathering of forces around a dancing solo part, as the texture rebuilds from solo bass to full orchestra. The second movement, my favorite of the three, begins as an arioso accompanied by pizzicato strings, a little reminiscent in that way of the Villa-Lobos Bachianias brasileiras No. 5. A clarinet joins with the bass for a duet that will haunt you before the orchestra breaks in with an energetic samba, thus reinforcing the Villa-Lobos echo. The arioso returns, this time with a duet between bass and oboe. The finale tries to go out with a bang, but, despite the various rockets Meyer sets off, the rhythm seems mostly to plod. This may be the orchestral performance, or it may stem from Meyer's insistence on a stamping on-the-beat bass part as well as a certain four-squaredness to the themes.

You may not recognize the name Bottesini right off the bat. Considered the great 19th-century virtuoso of the double bass, he also composed, most likely to provide himself with repertoire. Meyer plays his own edition (with his own cadenzas). Despite national origin and name, Bottesini composed solidly in the German tradition. Indeed, in a "drop-the-needle" test, you might be tempted to guess a minor German Romantic master, like Goldmark, without the occasional flash of genius. The concerto -- despite Meyer's enthusiasm for it as "my favorite concerto" -- will never set the world on fire, but it does genuinely charm, particularly the singing second movement. And sing Meyer does, keeping up with the best cellist you ever heard. I find the third movement for Meyer's cadenza, which sends the double bass into the string Himalayas, normally reserved for violinists' harmonics. The tone is pure and sweetly in tune, and how he brings it off, I have no idea. Toward the end, Bottesini himself has a breakout moment, with a theme that reminds me of a Liszt Hungarian dance. Meyer and the orchestra play with a lovely lilt.

The Gran Duo Concertante wants nothing more than to be liked and succeeds. Bottesini wrote its one movement while still a teen-ager. With considerable precocity (and lack of experience), he composed it for two double basses. Fortunately, Camillo Savari, a Paganini disciple, rearranged the thing (with at least the composer's blessing) into its present form for violin and bass. It generally consists of the two soloists trading licks, as the orchestra remains discreetly in the background, for the most part, stepping up to grandly announce a new section before settling into its vamp. Oddly enough, although the double bass has a very difficult part, it mainly accompanies the violin. Apparently, Bottesini -- who performed it in his concerts -- didn't hog the limelight. Joshua Bell very often fails to make any sort of impression on me. Obviously, he's a wonderful player, but it takes an extraordinary violinist to register with me. Truthfully, I couldn't tell you whether it's Heifetz or Stern or Ricci or Accardo or Francescatti playing, from the sound alone. Pathetic, I know. However, for the first time, Bell scores with me here -- strong, vibrant playing, in tune without calling attention to the fact. It's probably the closest a violin can sound like a trumpet. Again, Meyer has a lot of thankless things to do (apparently, Bottesini reserved what became the violin part for himself), but he does them very well and strongly supports the star.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (apparently Sony's American house orchestra) under Hugh Wolff does fine. It makes the most of its few moments in the sun.

S.G.S. (January 2003)