Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dittersdorf: Concerto No. 2 for Double-bass and Orchestra

A less heard though equally prolific contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) is also known to have played first violin alongside both of them in what might be considered history’s first Million Dollar Quartet in the musical “small world” of eighteenth-century Vienna.

The mutual influences are apparent throughout Dittersdorf’s substantial catalog of works spanning all the major genres of his time. Adding to his dozens of symphonies, operas, cantatas, and assorted chamber music are concertos for almost every instrument in the early classical orchestra.

The oldest surviving concertos for double-bass are the two by Dittersdorf, written for and premiered by Friedrich Pischelberger, a virtuoso player whose instrument would likely have had five strings and used the “Viennese tuning” (F-A-D-F#-A).

Modern editions of Concerto No. 2 (by far, the better known) are played with “solo tuning” on the double-bass, which retains the now standard string intervals (fourths) raised one step above concert pitch. Thus, the soloist plays a transposing part in the historically accurate key of D, while the orchestra accompanies in the concert key of E.

The technical challenges of the piece include numerous passages in the high register, and the use of double-stops and harmonics. These, along with traditional solo cadenzas offer a rare glimpse of highly skilled playing on an instrument normally relegated to the background.

Not to be overlooked, the beautifully written orchestral accompaniment scored for horns, flutes and strings attests to the considerable talents of a composer to whom history has perhaps not devoted enough space.

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