Double Basses & Company: Jack Buckley’s final weekend at the Pontino Festival

Double Basses & Company: Jack Buckley’s final weekend at the Pontino Festival (JB)

I. Caetani Castle Courtyard, Sermoneta, 16.7.2011 with Mariana Sirbu and Gabriele Ceci (violins), Bruno Giuranna (viola), Rocco Filippini (cello), Franco Petracchi (double bass)

Schubert, String Trio in B flat D471

Beethoven, Serenade in D Op. 8

Bottesini, Quintet in c minor

II. Restored Infirmary of the Fossanova Abbey, 17.7.2011 Quintetto Bottesini: Alessandro Cervo (violin), Federico Stassi (viola), Anna Armatys (cello), Roberto Della Vecchia (double bass), Linda Di Carlo (piano)

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Quintet in C minor

Louise Farrenc, Quintet in E, Op. 31 no. 2


L-R Franco Petracchi and José Vilaplana

Energy again! Franco Petracchi is instructing twenty-eight year old Borna Dejanovic (Croatia) on Nino Rota’s double bass concerto, one of many concertos which was written for Petracchi himself. All the rhythms have to be observed to the last detail, he explains to Borna, but the colouring you bring to the melodies depends on your own individual musical energies. He then demonstrates. This is one of many pieces on which the maestro can speak authoritatively: he had a hand in the making of the score.

Petracchi is acknowledged as the Emperor of the Double Bass World. José Vilaplana (Pepe to his friends; twenty-three from Valencia) is certainly his heir apparent. The opening of an exhibition of new paintings at a Sermoneta art gallery is scheduled for half past six on the evening of July 16 th. Please note that the citadel has no bank, nor even a barber shop, but it does boast some very busy open-air bars and restaurants and two art galleries.

Among the Roy Lichtenstein-style paintings, José Vilaplana looks as though he has just stepped out of a Velasquez canvas. His fine, aristocratic face is solemn; his movements over his gigantic instrument as gentle and expressively choreographed as his supremely sensitive sound. He is playing Bach’s first Suite. Imagine a cello with four times that instrument’s resonance, but with the delicacy of a violin, and you will have begun to understand José’s sound. He makes his instrument dance and sing at Bach’s command, like no other double bass player, to quote Maestro Petracchi.

When I ask José for a programme for a concert in which I am proposing to present him in Rome, he says, Can we discuss it with the Maestro? You don’t often find such mutual admiration between maestro and pupil.

Giovanni Bottesini (1821 – 1889) was known as the Paganini of the double bass. He was also an acclaimed conductor and on the podium in Cairo in 1871 for the premiere of Aida at Verdi’s request, besides being a prolific composer himself. One of his two concertos will be familiar to all who have ever auditioned double basses. Surprisingly, his string quintet, which formed the centre-piece of a recital by the Pontino Festival’s teachers of the courses, does not make a protagonist of the double bass. All the hard work goes to the first violin – the excellent and rock-solid, Mariana Sirbu – who was equally overworked in the programme’s other two pieces (below).

Bottesini’s first movement is so reminiscent of Palm Court repertory that you half expect aspidistras to sprout through the stage floor. Some mildly judged interventions from Rocco Filippini (cello) and immaculately timed coughs and sneezes from Bruno Giuranna (viola) kept the entertainment flowing. The second movement (scherzo) is more fun, not least because it is more of an ensemble piece. The adagio (third movement) is hauntingly arresting, though even here Madame Sirbu is overworked. The finale gets near to treating the five instruments as equals and for that reason was most enjoyed by both players and audience. It was encored.

Two string trios – Schubert’s D471 of 1816 and Beethoven’s Serenade, Op. 8, formed the first part of the programme. Both the pieces are clearly juvenilia with simplicity of form and structure at the fore. But while the young Schubert is comfortable with his simplicity, which enables his charm to shine through (all matters beautifully attended to by the trio) the young Beethoven is decidedly uncomfortable with such a naked approach to composition. It is as though he has to advertise his simplicity as a vice. And I had forgotten what a bore Beethoven can be when he misses the boat as badly as this. Not even the pain-staking excellence of this trio could save him.


Albert Casadei

But there was a surprise awaiting me this year on my final visit to the Pontino Festival. A young man leaned across the dining table and said Don’t you remember me, Mr Buckley? I was sorry to say that I didn’t. But when he gave his name I was able to tell him that I remembered vividly his sound. Alberto Casadei was a smallish fifteen year old when I auditioned and recruited him for a chamber orchestra. He is now twenty-three and some 1.85 metres tall. And still totally wrapped up in the world of his cello. Which is why he (unreasonably!) expected me to recognise him.

In the intervening eight years he has followed a four-year course with Natalia Gutman. So how was that?As you know, the word compromise does not exist for La Gutman. She restructured my technique from top to bottom. So you learned something new? And how!

Alberto Casadei has found a soul mate in Robert Schumann. He has brought the Fantasiestucke, Op. 73. to work on with Rocco Filippini. Alberto’s unstoppable impetuosity is still there, as energetic as a volcano, but the technique is much more secure. He makes difficult maneuvers sound easy and natural. Above all, his love affair with his instrument communicates the music powerfully to all who hear him.

Rocco Filippini is performing a valuable service by quietly bringing the young lion into line with the details of Schumann’s requirements. Thrilling as the boy’s sound is, his combination of energy and enthusiasm can cause him to stray out of focus without this guidance. But he is as quick as a flea when it is explained to him where he is going off the rails.


A programme note explains that the Quintetto Bottesini is so called because of the inclusion of a double bass in the quintet. You might wonder equally, why not the Quintetto Casals because of the cellist or the Kreisler Quintet because of the violinist? Admittedly, the inclusion of a double bass in a quintet is indeed unusual though as everyone knows, Schubert set the ball rolling here, fishing for Trout. The Forelle composition (violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano) is that of the Bottesini.

Theirs was a programme of two unusual jewels. But as neither the Quintet nor the composers are well-known to audiences, the former Infirmary of the Fossanova Abbey (beautifully restored as a concert hall by the Architetto Cerocchi, the Pontino Festival’s guiding light) was only about a third full. If only those who stayed away had known what they were missing.

Ursula Vaughan Williams (the composer’s widow) was right to publish, in 1999, her husband’s withdrawn Quintet in C minor. Like so much of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s work, the piece is deeply influenced by English folk music. And the rendition of the Bottesini Quintet was true to the style. Looking through the Abbey’s windows at the Mediterranean palms while listening to music evocative of the English downs was at first a little puzzling to an audience unfamiliar with this work. Thanks to the excellence of the players, however, the public so warmed to the piece that it brought a well-deserved applause at the end.

RVW’s final movement uses variations. All too frequently, this form can be the refuge of the feeble-minded. How we had suffered on this score from Beethoven and Bottesini on the previous evening! But RVW, like Schubert, is by nature sincere. All of this was well in evidence from the players.

The real surprise came after the interval with a shamefully neglected genuine masterpiece: the Quintet in E, Op 31 no 2 of Louise Farrenc (1804 – 1875). Madame Farrenc’s story is a stop-the-press feminist biography. She was the first woman to be admitted as a piano teacher at the Paris Conservatory and applauded everywhere for her mastery of that instrument. She was helped by having a husband who was a music publisher. It is a pity that she did not teach composition. Bottesini, for one, could have learned much from her. (Suggestion for the Bottesini Quintet: how about changing your name to the Farrenc Quintet?)

All five instruments are given equal treatment in each of Farrenc’s four movements. Linda Di Carlo told me she had rarely had such a pianistic challenge. Well, you represented the lady beautifully, dear Linda. As did your partners. No one is an accompanist in Farrenc’s inspired and carefully thought-out writing. More, please! Linda tells me there is another Farrenc Quintet for the same combination, which they will play at the Quirinale Palace in Rome in the autumn. Watch this space for a report.

The Farrenc scherzo was particularly enchanting, somewhat influenced, I fancy, by Mendelssohn’s fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or was that Mendelssohn picking up on Louise? The Quintet answered their standing ovation by giving us a memorable delivery of Schubert’s Trout scherzo.

Jack Buckley

Pictures © Erika  Young