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A Chat with Leon Bosch by Martin Simpson

I interviewed Leon Bosch for the pages of this magazine in October last year but we really only briefly covered his professional playing life. In this ‘chat’, we’ll talk about his incredible recording project which he embarked on a few years ago which, to date, encompasses seven recordings. This is what Leo told me in August this year. 

Leon, you have now recorded seven discs of music for solo double bass. How did you get started on this project, with what music, when?

Until 2005 my experience of recording had been exclusively in the realm of orchestral, and chamber music and commercial pop and film work: it seemed merely an inevitable component of my professional life.

A stimulating and active career as a chamber and orchestral musician proved insufficient however, since it was in truth the solo potential of the double bass that really fired my imagination.

After 21 years in the music business I finally reorganised my musical activities to reflect that passion and I also made the decision to subject my capabilities as a musician, and as a double bass player, to the ultimate scrutiny of the microphone.

It was quite fortuitous then that Meridian Records, for whom I had previously recorded, with The Goldberg Ensemble, The Music Group of Manchester, and one or two other chamber ensembles, suggested that I consider recording a solo disc for them.

I was of course excited by the prospect, but anxious at the same time. The microphone tells no lies and committing ones musical vision to disc, for eternity, is a monumental responsibility and challenge, but it was a challenge which I felt ready to face.

For the first disc, Virtuoso Double Bass Vol.1, I decided to record ten pieces of Bottesini, pieces which I had first learnt as a young student in Cape Town and had subsequently performed many times. Bottesini enjoys a very special place in my affections and these were the pieces that I thought most accurately reflected my own musical passion.

Once Virtuoso Double Bass Volume 1 was released in 2006, my second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh discs followed in fairly quick succession.

Recording the first disc really ignited my penchant for recording and it is now my intention to record 2 or 3 discs each year for the foreseeable future, and to cover as much musical ground as possible.

What motivates you to do this?

I have never really thought too much about why I do this, but your question has given me pause for thought.

The recording business has changed dramatically in recent times and whilst recordings have in the past ostensibly been a vehicle to fame and fortune for many artists, that incentive is fortunately now utterly redundant.

Recording is for me a moral obligation, and one which comprises at least three components:

  1. The Music – Music is undoubtedly one of humanity’s finest achievements and we as performing artists have a responsibility to the music itself, and indeed to composers, who through the medium of music and their compositions in particular, choose to express and share their understanding and vision of the world, of which we are all a part.  Music has the power to illuminate a route to the truth and my first and most important obligation is therefore, to the music.
  1. The Double Bass – Saint Saëns presents perhaps the most popular and grotesque, if light-hearted, caricature of the double bass in his ‘Le Elephant’ from The Carnival of the Animals.

In light of such popular and deeply held misconceptions I believe that it is therefore my responsibility to be a rather more principled advocate for the instrument, and committing myself to mastering the technical demands of the instrument as well as the language of music itself is a small but necessary first step.

The double bass is a double bass and its unique possibilities cannot be fully exploited until an informed appreciation of the instrument and its true capabilities is achieved. In the absence of such an appreciation, succumbing to a variety of wholly unnecessary superficial gimmicks becomes a clear and present danger.

The history of the double bass is littered with innumerable great virtuosi who in addition to inspiring many great composers to write for the instrument, also left a veritable treasure trove of performance and pedagogical material for the instrument, enough to keep anyone busy for a number of lifetimes.

Performing and recording as much of this original music, conceived and composed specifically for the instrument, lies at the centre of my own mission and obligation to the instrument.

  1. People – The third and perhaps most personal component is the debt I owe to all the distinguished and dedicated musicians who patiently and selflessly contributed to my own artistic and intellectual development.

The words ‘thank you’ seemed somewhat inadequate and I decided therefore to articulate my thanks through this series of recordings. The list of people I need to thank is a long one, but I am making some progress:

‘The Hungarian Double Bass’ is a tribute to my very first double bass teacher, Zoltan Kovats, who did so much to provide me with the tools to express myself on the instrument. He also taught me the true value of hard work and patience, a priceless and indeed durable lesson.

‘The British Double Bass’ is not just a tribute to Rodney Slatford who taught me whilst I was a student in Manchester, but also celebrates the significant achievement of his publishing company, Yorke Edition, which continues to do so much to advance the cause of the double bass, as well as British composers for the instrument.

The disc, to be released next month, devoted to works by Allan Stephenson is intended not just to recognise Allan’s exceptional qualities and skill as a composer, but also to acknowledge the critical contribution he made in first of all identifying, and then nurturing my talent whilst I was a student at the University of Cape Town.

Why the national approach to collections of solo double bass repertoire?

This is purely coincidental and unintentional, since I am not a nationalist in any sense of the word.

My approach to learning music is much the same as my approach to literature: when I find an author I enjoy, I try to read their complete works, in order to develop a better understanding of the style, content and significance of their art.

In music I likewise attempt to achieve an integrated understanding of the composer’s life, his or her intentions, the distinctive stylistic features of the music, the nature of the detail embedded therein, the consequent technical demands and the historical and social context of course.

I have always had this habit of learning things ‘en masse’, and my obsession with Bottesini early on in my career was probably the start of that way of learning.

My discs ‘Virtuoso Double Bass’ Volumes 1 & 2 are devoted entirely to the compositions of Bottesini, and his Italian nationality was immaterial to me in learning these works. The fact that he was a virtuoso instrumentalist compelled me to pursue the bravura capability of the instrument and the fact that his own compositions were influenced by opera and the bel canto style was of paramount significance.  In order to do justice to his music, it was these concepts I needed to grasp.

There is an essence to everything in life, and it is perhaps my structured determination to grapple with this quintessential core which gives the impression of a national approach in my recordings.

When you were researching the music, what were your most enjoyable, interesting and surprising discoveries?

This whole recording project is a journey which has no clear destination and neither is there a fixed route.

Each successive disc has taken me in pleasantly surprising and previously unimagined directions. I have not only made new musical discoveries but have also further developed my own philosophical and intellectual perspectives.

Whilst researching the British music project, it was learning about the lives of the composers which I found particularly gripping. The breadth and depth of British composition is so grossly undervalued, especially in the United Kingdom itself.

Thomas Pitfield for example, was not only a composer, but also a poet and artist of some considerable accomplishment. He began his working life in the cotton industry in Manchester at the age of 14 and this funded his passion for music. It wasn’t long before he became professor of composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music, and he was also an active opponent of the use of nuclear weapons. His principle stand was made at a time when it was not just inconvenient to do so, but also dangerous.

Before recording the British Double Bass CD, I went to visit the Pitfield archive at The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and spent an absorbing day looking through his scores, sketchbooks, paintings and other works. The Sonatina for double bass and piano is a real gem and I am particularly delighted to have recorded it.

Recording ‘The British Double Bass’ has also led directly to other interesting discoveries as well as new compositions written specially for me.

David Ellis wrote Parallel Shadows for Double Bass and Piano Op.84 for me, following my recording of his Op.42 Sonata for unaccompanied double bass and the eminent composer Christopher Gunning has written a set of variation for unaccompanied double bass, and I hope to include both these in a second recording of British music for double bass, along with the Rhapsody for solo double bass by Marie Dare, which I had not known about until undertaking this research.

When I first heard Pedro Valls’ Suite Andaluza in 2009, I had no idea that I would find so much of his music, or indeed that I would record any of it, nor did I realise that two of his most eminent students, Anton Torello and Jose Cervera have also composed quite prolifically for the instrument. Their works will incidently be the subject of a future recording and I am currently preparing the scores of these.

Following a recital of music by Pedro Valls which I recently gave in the USA, the Brazilian double bassist Marcos Machado suggested that I record a disc of Latin American music, to include repertoire recommended solely by him, based upon his judgement of what would suit my way of playing.

I know that I really enjoy the ‘Spanish’ idiom and that this will be another fabulous voyage of discovery.

What I love most about this recording project however is that it has helped me become a much better musician than I ever imagined possible.

You obviously enjoyed choosing favourite pieces to arrange e.g. Hungarian disc, is this something new for the recording project?

I’m not particularly keen on transcriptions, but once in a while the sentiment expressed in a particular piece will begin to torment me and I usually see that as my cue to transcribe it for double bass.

I have made a whole host of transcriptions, ranging from Mendelssohn’s ‘On wings of song’ through Shostakovich’s Romance from the Gadfly to Bartok’s Sonatina, Rubinstein’s Romance and Liszt’s La lugubre gondola.

The Hungarian Double Bass does of course include my transcriptions of the Liszt and Bartok, but that is once again purely incidental and not necessarily a new departure.

Previous discs, like the Russian Double bass have also included some of my transcriptions, Rubinstein’s Romance and Melody, as well as Shostakovich’s Romance from the Gadfly, for example and I imagine that I shall continue to record more of my transcriptions in the future, when suitable opportunities arise.

The most important guiding principle for me in making and recording these transcriptions is the musical imperative. If there is any danger that the essence of the music could be lost in translation then I abandon the idea without hesitation.

How do you find the time to prepare so much repertoire so quickly?

Focus and determination I guess, but it is ultimately the music itself which propels me.

I also know that if I do not spend the requisite amount of time studying and preparing the music, the final product is likely to be compromised and that is a very powerful incentive too!

My work with The Academy of St Martin in the Fields entails a lot of international touring and whilst being perpetually on the road can be tiresome, I have developed a regime that works for me.

The trick, if one could call it that, is to effectively utilise the innumerable tid-bits of time which could otherwise go to waste. I voluntarily forgo the temptation of fine wines, gastronomic indulgences and sight-seeing, however compelling these may be, and choose instead to spend my time practicing.

As soon as we arrive in a new town or city, usually around lunchtime, I will head for the concert hall, where I will spend as much time as possible practising before the orchestra arrives for the official rehearsal later in the afternoon, before the evening’s concert.

Free days on tour are also spent in my hotel bedroom doing administrative chores, reading, but most importantly, practising, and I also always carry my scores with me in order that I may do a bit of study during unanticipated quiet moments.

When I am at home I also ensure that I practise every day, however busy the day at work may have been.

Yehudi Menuhin once commented that birds fly, every day of their lives, because that is what birds do, and we as artists ought similarly to practice every day. A bird is after all unlikely to get up in the morning and decide not to fly, just because it didn’t feel like it!

Fortunately, I find the whole process quite therapeutic anyway, so it is no great sacrifice.

Have you developed a particular strategy for recording?

I have indeed.

Experience is undoubtedly a vital ingredient in every human activity and I learn more with each successive recording project.

My first disc was undoubtedly the most difficult one to record, since I had no experience whatsoever of having to play for so long with such complete concentration and with the added pressure of having to get it right all the time, both technically and musically.

To be able to play continuously, with maximum effort and concentration, for a number of hours a day, requires one to be in good mental, physical and spiritual shape, and meticulous preparation is therefore of vital importance, as is discipline, and having a realistic plan.

To be able to record one disc of virtuoso music of around 65 minutes duration on the double bass requires, I think, about 600 hours of practise and in the beginning Sung-Suk and I would spend three days recording everything in one go.

All this changed however, around the time when I was to record my second disc of Bottesini. Some frantic last minute practice saw me incur an injury to the index finger on my left hand, a sub-dermal blister, which would, according to medical advice take up to two years to heal completely.

This unfortunately meant postponing the recording, which was a huge disappointment to me.

I therefore had to find a different way to do things and in conversation with Johnny Schaeffer, ex-principal of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he suggested that I record in two batches, one half of a disc at a time. Painfully simple, but exceptionally good advice! Wherever possible, I now restrict myself to no more than two days of recording at any one time, especially in virtuoso repertoire.

In the actual process of recording I have also developed a new strategy. Once the initial questions of sound and balance have been attended to, I spend less time listening to ‘takes’. I just play as much as possible; with many more complete performances, and much longer takes. Even when a piece is ‘in the can’ I will play a few more complete performances, and it is in these ‘luxury takes’ that we are often able to find something even more magical.

I have complete trust in our producer and since I feel liberated to just play, we get much more material recorded, and much more quickly too.

The microphone and I have become very good friends indeed!

In virtuoso instrumental music, is it different performing live to recording?

Performing live concerts and recording are in my view entirely different processes and I believe that I have finally found the most conducive arena in which to express my own creativity, the recording studio.

Because coming to grief in public can have such detrimental and costly consequences, live performance inevitably entails a degree of compromise: playing safe becomes the stock in trade of the live performance circus, with true creativity more often than not relegated to second place.

Few artists possess the confidence to play with complete and utter abandon in public, and even fewer artists nowadays have the time to devote to the meticulous preparation which true creativity and complete reliability both demand.

The relative privacy of the recording studio fortunately allows far greater risks, and with commensurately greater rewards.

Live performances are in my view generally, therefore, much more predictable than the endless creative possibilities presented by the process of recording, which can and should be far more than the mechanical reproduction of rigidly rehearsed performances.

How much playing together with Sung Suk prior to the recording project?

Sung-Suk lives in Vienna and that of course prevents us rehearsing as regularly as we might wish, but it does mean however that we have to utilise the time we have together much more efficiently.

I practise in isolation to begin with, and once I feel I am ready, rehearse with a number of other pianists here in the UK, all of whom contribute quite extraordinarily to my preparations.

Sung-Suk usually arrives in the UK a couple of days before the recording sessions and we spend those two days working in great detail, before we go and face the microphones.

At this point we will usually have developed a fairly clear idea about what the music demands of us and what the possibilities are. Our reservoir of experience from our live performances also contributes in untold ways, but what I appreciate most about Sung-Suk is her almost telepathic ability to understand my musical intentions, and also her capacity for challenging me musically.

She is not just a great pianist, but an exceptional musician.

Have you used the same instrument for all your recordings?

No, my trusted Gagliano has recorded 5 of the seven discs so far and Lockey Hill and Landolfi have done one each.

I recorded the ‘British Double Bass’ on the Lockey Hill, for fairly obvious reasons, and the Valls disc is the first one I have recorded on the Landolfi.

Gagliano is of course the instrument with which I am most comfortable, it has been my constant companion since 1995, but my passion for sound inevitably drives me to continually experiment with other instruments.

I shall probably record the next two discs with Gagliano too, but I have a magnificent sixteenth century Brescian double bass which I am hoping to use, with gut strings, for my Dragonetti recording next year.

Which pieces would you now like to revisit?

For now, nothing at all.

Every recording expresses my sincere view of the music at a particular point in time and there can of course be no perfect or ‘definitive’ in the jargon of our times, interpretation of anything.

No single individual can embody or exemplify every single aspect of anything and perfection is an illusion which becomes ever more elusive, the harder one works.

Are there any other bass players that you admire for their contribution?

Serge Koussevitzky made the first ever double bass recording in 1929, but it wasn’t until much later in the twentieth century that that any further recordings became available, in any significant numbers. Virtuosi like Gary Karr, Ludwig Streicher, Frantisek Posta and Rodion Azarkhin were the trail-blazers, and Rodney Slatford’s recording of music Dittersdorf, Keyper and Rossini was the first by a British double bassist.

Around 1980, shortly after I had started learning to play the double bass, Gary Karr came to Cape Town to perform a memorable recital with Lamar Crowson at the Baxter Theatre. I can still vividly remember how enthralling his dextrous execution of the passages in harmonics in Bottesini’s Fantasie Sonnambula was, and hearing that made me realise the unbelievable potential of the instrument.

Seeking, as a young student, to emulate Gary Karr’s extraordinary feats on the instrument provided me with the most powerful internal motivation.

Listening to recordings made an equally significant contribution to my musical development, and I spent countless hours, and almost as much money, collecting and listening to vinyl records, the medium of the day.

Amongst these recorded performances, it was the apparent nonchalance of Ludwig Streicher, the searing intensity of Rodion Azarkhin and the supreme integrity of Frantisek Posta’s playing, which made the deepest impression on me.

Double bass recordings are of course much more common nowadays and whilst the general technical and musical level has increased markedly, much still remains to be done.

What will you record next and when do you think you might run out of ideas and/or energy?

In September 2011 Sung-Suk Kang and I will record a disc of 20th Century Sonatas, two by the Austrian composer, Norbert Sprongl as well as the Sonata by Paul Hindemith.

Then in November 2011, I will record the complete works for solo double bass by Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf with The Academy of St Martin in the Fields. My co-soloist for the Sinfonia Concertante and the Duetto for double bass and viola will be Robert Smissen, principal violist of The Academy.

Other plans for the near future include a disc of music by Domenico Dragonetti, the concertos by Gian Carlo Menotti and Hans Werner Henze and I need of course still to complete my Bottesini project. Eight pieces with piano remain to be done, as well as his solo concertos, all of the duos concertante and the three duos for two double basses.

My musical journey around the world will naturally also provide me with much food for thought and the next stop in my itinerary may well be Latin America!

There is enough original bass music to keep me busy for a few lifetimes, so on that front I have no concerns, and my reservoir of mental and physical energy currently appears to be  inexhaustible too, so I shall therefore keep going at the rate of two or three discs a year.

In addition to all these solo recording projects, there is also a whole lot of chamber music, with double bass, which I would love to be able to commit to disc, not least Bottesini’s Gran Quintet in C.

Visit Leon Bosch online at leonbosch.co.uk

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