Jeremy Kurtz-Harris


The Collaborative Bassist: Chamber Music and the Bassist, Part 1

The Great Chamber Music Search

As a bassist, I have always taken advantage of all opportunities I find to play chamber music.  Unfortunately, these opportunities have seemed to be exceedingly rare--at least, compared to those of my upper-string-playing friends and colleagues.  I remember one of the few chamber music coachings I had during undergrad--something that was a weekly ritual for the rest of the string players--and being blown away by the level of musicality that was expected by the players and the teacher.  Everyone was focusing on a much more refined level of phrasing, intonation, and musicality than was ever possible in a large orchestra rehearsal, and certainly a higher level than what was generally expected of the bass players.  This inspired me--but also made me rather jealous of the other string players!

While I performed in chamber groups when possible, the repertoire options always seemed very limited, and this was discouraging.  I kept my ears open for names of pieces, and picked up suggestions from others, but was never particularly systematic about it.  The list of pieces I was familiar with was short: Schubert "Trout" Quintet, Dvorak Quintet, Prokofiev Quintet, several modern pieces by Jon Deak and David Anderson, and maybe a handful of other pieces I'd heard about.  It certainly didn't seem enough to fill up a lifetime of music making.

Last Spring, I sat down to talk with Kurt Muroki [an interview from this conversation appears in the June-Sept 2009 edition of the ISB's "Bass World" magazine] about a number of topics, including chamber music.  Kurt has focused his career on performing chamber music and in chamber orchestras, and I had been somewhat baffled about the repertoire piece of the puzzle.  I joked that most people think that a bassist who wants to be a chamber musician will need to play the Schubert "Trout" every week.  When I asked Kurt whether there were really that many good pieces out there, he responded, "Tons!  There's tons! "  Kurt proceeded to talk about how he felt that chamber music was, in addition to a great art form, one of the best methods of training for soloists and orchestral musicians.  He felt strongly that it should be an integral part of a musician's experience at all levels of growth.

In the months following that conversation, I have become inspired to search more carefully for pieces, and have already turned up much more than I imagined was out there.

First of all, there are several dedicated chamber-music-with-bass groups in existance that have been recording numerous lesser-known works, generally from the classical period.  I find that these recordings are a great way to start sorting through possibilities, and to discover which works one wants to program.

Nepomuk Fortepiano Quintet is a group in the "Trout" formation: violin, viola, cello, bass, and (forte)piano.  They have, indeed, made a recording of the Schubert "Trout", but also of piano quintets by John Baptist Cramer, Johann Nepomuk Hummel (from whom they take their name--and who may have been the first to write for this combination,) Johann Ladislaus Dussek, George Onslow, Ferdinand Ries, and Franz Limmer.  Personally, I was completely blown away by this list.  I had heard of some of these composers, but had no idea that they had all written piano quintets that included bass.

Another great resource is the Ensemble Concertant Frankfurt.  The ensemble was founded by members of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, and has a string quintet at its core.  They have recorded string quintets by L. Boccherini, Joseph Eybler, Franz Xaver Gebel, and George Onslow, in addition to several pieces with piano and additional strings.  Again, my reaction was one of surprise: "Gebel? Onslow? Eybler?  Why have I never heard of these composers before?"

Of course, the first answer one expects (as a cynic, at least) is that the composers were second rate, and there was a reason that there music disappeared.  While this may be the case with a few composers that I've run into--or at least with some of the pieces by these composers--I have been finding quite a few pieces that I think are worth serious consideration.  

Another ensemble from Germany that has had a very significant output is the Linos Ensemble
They are a larger group, with a core of five string players, five wind players, and a pianist.  They have quite a long list of CDs, and have recorded chamber works with bass by Dvorak, Farrenc, Fesca, Francaix, Prokofiev, Ries, Schubert, and Spohr.  Some serious listening homework!

Two groups in London,  The Schubert Ensemble of London and The Nash Ensemble, both have also made significant contributions.

The Schubert Ensemble of London has released fine recordings of the Schubert and Hummel piano quintets, as well as a disc with two piano quintets by the French composer Louise Farrenc (1804-1875.)  Here is another practically unknown composer who wrote for the "Trout" combination, and the two quintets are certainly worth looking into.  The Schubert Ensemble has also released recordings containing two other pieces of interest: Martin Butler's "Rounds" for string quintet, and Piers Hellawell's "Weaver of Grass" for piano quintet.  According to (ISB president and former London resident) Rob Nairn, the group has commissioned 15 or so pieces with the "Trout" instrumentation, and I hope they put more of these to disc in the future.

The Nash Ensemble has been in existence for over forty years, and has released over fifty recordings.  Quite a few include works with bass (featuring either Rodney Slatford or Duncan McTier), such as an early piano quintet by Vaughan Williams; septets by Beethoven, Berwald, and Hummel; nonets by Arnold Bax and Louis Spohr; and many others.

For those of you who want to check out any of these recordings, or look for some more, here are two great sources:
HB Direct --one of the best classical music sources on the web.  Yes, Amazon and some other sites have similar lists of recordings, but I personally like the idea of supporting one of the few companies that still specializes in classical music.

Berkshire Record Outlet --Many musicians who have attended the BSO's Tanglewood Institute have made an afternoon pilgrimage to this store, and, happily, they have a website with a very good search engine.  They specialize in overstocks and cutouts, and so one can often find incredible deals here.  I have turned up numerous hard-to-find discs here, including older Chamber Society of Lincoln Center recordings with Edgar Meyer, a Moscow String Quartet album that includes a string quintet by Glinka (yet another piece I'd never heard of!), and many other finds.  My one "oops" was buying a baroque disc that featured a piece for violin and bass, which turned out to be "ground bass"--just a harpsichord.  But I think that disc was only $4, so no big deal.

As far as the scores and parts for all of these pieces go . . . let's just say it can take quite a few hours of internet searching to dig some of these up.  Many are not commercially available, too, and this can be disappointing.  

One great source for finding printed music is the wonderful IMSLP / Petrucci Music Library.  This site brings together the digitized collections of many libraries and other sources, and allows you to download all of these public domain works for free.  I have found several hard-to-find scores here, including works by Gebel and Onslow.  Again, it can take a bit of time to dig up works of interest--and you have to print it all out yourself--but this is sure easier than flying to the Royal Danish Library yourself and digging through their archives!

Recordings are only way one to start digging into lesser-known repertoire.  While it is obviously helpful to get a preview from a recording, there is no substitute for trying out pieces yourself.  Also, the majority of chamber pieces with bass have not been recorded, and so, at some point, one must forge off the (recorded) path.  

For those of you who really are motivated, run, don't walk, to Paul Nemeth's definitive 3000 Chamber Works with the Double Bass page.
It is both highly inspirational and highly overwhelming!  But it is a terrific resource (I can't believe I didn't know about it until this week!!) and I look forward to playing--and hearing--many of these works in the future.

I feel that I've only dipped my toe into the "great chamber music search," and am looking forward to more discoveries.  In future posts, I hope to cover some of these works more in depth, as well as looking at great 20th century chamber music, and also getting some input from bassists who are making chamber music central to their lives