Bertram Turetzky – Recital of New Music

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Electronic Study II with Contrabass
For Double Bass Alone
Duo for Flute and String Bass
Monody II for Unaccompanied Double Bass
Cinque Frammenti for Oboe and String Bass

Bertram Turetzky (double bass)

Josef Marx (oboe), Patrick Purswell & Nancy Turetzky (flutes), Shirley Sudock (soprano), and Gustav Meier (conductor – Two)

Originally released in 1964 as Advance Recordings FGR-1

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: October 2010
Duration: 36 minutes

Unsatisfied with the dearth of music for his instrument, Bertram Turetzky’s search for new pieces for double bass culminated in this first album of works written for him. This 1964 record was the first of many which document a life spent engaging with and commissioning new music from hundreds of composers over a fifty-year period. Today (2010), Turetzky (born 1933) is recognised as one of the most imaginative double bassists around and his book “The Contemporary Contrabass” is a handbook to new ways of playing the bass.

Imaginary Chicago Records has unearthed this album after nearly fifty years of neglect, and it does sound its age. The presentation is a cardboard sleeve and with minimal information. The record was first issued by Advance Recordings and the variety of venues used in its recording yield sound of varying quality. Most of the composers featured are unfamiliar names, but this time-capsule of an album features some fascinating music written at a time when instruments such as the double bass were only beginning to be explored as solo voices. ICR provides the original sleeve-note on its website – on the first link below – though most of the composers’ explanations are dryly technical.

The vocal qualities of the bass are utilised in the first piece, Electronic Study II with Contrabass (1962) by Charles Whittenberg (1927-1984). A crash redolent of a nuclear blast unleashes a series of gloriously archaic electronic beeps and whistles which bring to mind vintage visions of a science-fiction future of robots and vast computers. Fighting for survival amid this electronic onslaught is the solo bass which mimics a despairing human voice in its leaping phrases. It is the overwhelmed human heart at the centre of this mechanised nightmare and the work is elevated beyond the amusingly dated by the historical context of the very real threat of nuclear annihilation. The solo bass’s dying harmonics in the quiet conclusion reveal Whittenberg’s seriousness of intent.

William Jay Sydeman (born 1928) allows Turetzky to explore the cello-like sonorities of the bass in For Double Bass Alone (1957). The glowering opening chords of this brief three-movement work establish the broadly tonal music language. The rhythmic pizzicato and snatched phrases of the second movement reveal the limitations of the recording which at times becomes uncomfortably distorted. The snarling sense of foreboding in the outer movements proves to be the most effective moments of the piece.

Turetzky is joined by soprano Shirley Sudock and one of the two listed flautists (the presentation does note indentify which) in Two (1962) by Kenneth Gaburo (1926-1993). The three-minute piece is a setting of Virginia Hommel’s poem about two lovers. The vocal line proceeds as though carefully setting one foot in front of the other, while flute and bass flutter and spring around, growing more excited as the text describes the arrival of rain. Gaburo’s slow and leaping vocal phrases render parts of the text unintelligible but his handling of the instruments is effective.

Flute partners bass in Ben Johnston’s Duo (1963). Johnston (born 1926) builds a three-movement work of great contrast with the two instruments initially opposed and intermittently united in music which explores the microtonal possibilities of both. This is the most appealing work on the disc and, unlike the rest of the record, nods to styles removed from the avant-garde.

Monody II (1962) by George Perle (1915-2009) stretches Turetzky’s intonation further than elsewhere. He occasionally sounds as though he is losing the battle with Perle’s leaping phrases, though he characterises the serial material clearly enough to give the impression of a series of variations on a theme. Turetzky is joined by oboist Josef Marx in Cinque Frammenti (1961) by Donald Martino (1931-2005). This unusual pairing of instruments is particularly effective in the second of five interlocking movements and throughout the tone is one of lamentation leading to a quiet coda of spent energy.

This is a fascinating slice of mid-century American musical history and while the works are less varied stylistically than a similar recital of new music might be today, the concerns of the time and a feeling of exploration are palpable through the harsh recorded sound.

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