94 Double bass players from 24 countries applied to partake in the ARD Music Competition, 47 were accepted and 42 ended up making the trip. As with many of the more obscure instrumental categories of the ARD competition, one of the attractions is the possibility of playing with an orchestra as soon as the semi finals. On Monday, August 31st, a group of 13 participants opened the competition with their first round of performances, still with piano accompaniment except for the mandatory solo piece. For each round, the performers pick one work from three groups each and in their case it is either one of Bach’s Gamba Suites, Johann Matthias Sperger’s Sonata in D or b, or Schubert’s Arpeggione. Then a modern work by either Julien-François Zbinden, Teppo Hauta-Aho, Hans-Werner Henze, Jean Françaix, Giselher Klebe, Iannis Xenakis, Giacinto Scelsi, or Peteris Vasks. And then either the Grand Allegro di Concerto, the Romanza dramatica / Allegretto capriccio, the Elegie and Tarantella in a (all Giovanni Bottesini), or Reinhold Gliére’s Intermezzo & Tarantella, or Alfred Desenclos’ Aria e Rondo.
The distribution isn’t always even nor necessarily what the listener would like it to be, and so there are 21 J.M.Sperger sonatas to sit through, but only nine Bach Suites. Selecting the more or less modern pieces, the musicians showed even more discriminate bias: Over 30 players chose either Zbinden or Hauta-Aho; Vasks, Françaix, and Henze not ten between them. And no one thought it prudent to impress the jury with Xenakis, Klebe, or Scelsi. Ha Young Jung, a 19 year old Korean double bassist who studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, explained her choice for the Hauta-Aho piece with it being new for her—and particularly musical. When she talked about the piece, she did so with genuine enthusiasm that resembled the way she performs.
Her unbridled energy and diligence behind the notes showed in Sperger, and even more so in Bottesini’s Elegie & Tarantella, which she turned into high art. Even the high notes sounded musical and not like stunts. What a difference to the uniformly faceless, notes-only performance of Ayako Sadoya that made dull nonsense of Bottesini and exposed the Françaix as brutally, endlessly meandering. Krasen Zagorski had not yet recovered from an near-incapacitating shoulder injury, a handicap that prevented him practicing in the run-up to the competition and nearly meant not getting to play at all. The poor sod soldiered on, anyway, but buzzed on painkillers, he rushed through Hauta-Aho, denatured Bach, and by the time the Bottesini Gran Allegro came along, he’d gotten so disoriented that he blanked on some half dozen bars before finding his way back. Kurokawa Fuyuki had moments in the Françaix, notably the theme and the last variation, but he couldn’t control the buzzing of his bow, his high notes were rough, the phrasing not clean, and intonation a challenge. Jakob Fortuna shared the last, common, aspect—intonation trouble—but differed in that his tone was pleasant, his vibrato tasteful. Olivier Thiery was the other positive exception to the low standard: A pale tone was more than made up by precision (just how can intonation be a problem anyway, when you've got an inch to get the note right?), sonority, excellent technique and extraordinarily emotive, firm delicacy and happy indulgence. Schubert’s Arpeggione was particularly fortunate in his hands.