Any concerto for double-bass has to face two difficulties: that the focus of melodic interest will lie for the most part deep beneath the rest of the orchestra, and that this gentle giant of an instrument has a surprisingly soft voice. Every solution will be different. Mine is to go for lean austerity; textures are bare, even gaunt, to ensure that the protagonist will always be to the fore.
There are three movements. I, con moto non allegro, is marked "with stealthy undeviating steadiness". The soloist carries the long line from start to finish, broken only by brief breathing spaces in woodwinds between most of the eight sections, each centred on a different degree of the white-note scale. There are no chromatic notes whatsoever. The C-section makes a march-like build-up to a lyric climax on the E-scale, after which the line winds down to the A-mode in which it had begun.
II, scherzo, is marked "tight, precise, footling". The inspiration comes from jazz pizzicato, apparently casual and improvised (in fact quite closely organised). The winds of the orchestra imitate the clenched, strangulated sound of a big band. A more lyrical trio is accompanied by strings only. The scherzo reprise is brutally curtailed into a few bars.
III, finale, is longer and more rhapsodic. A horn-call summons forth each successive section: first the soloist’s cadenza, then a series of dances - slowish and rather melancholy, then a waltz, then another melancholy one (more polyphonic), and finally a lively section (based on the cadenza), burning-up into a harsh climax. After this, the horn-call becomes the basis for a long slow close, still on the gaunt side until an orchestral epilogue brings a touch of spring to this northern winter. The soloist closes the entire concerto with phrases from the cadenza that circle finally round to the music of the first movement.
The piece was drafted in summer 1996, fully worked and orchestrated later. The solo part has benefited enormously form the technical advice of Duncan McTier.
Robin Holloway, February 1999
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer