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Konzertstuck Op.54

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The Heritage Series series

The history of the double bass features many player-composers who created a wealth of music for bassists of all abilities. Recital Music publish a wide and eclectic range of music by these important figures from the history of the instrument, particularly from the 19th and early 20th-centuries, and more works are in preparation. Some names are well known today, others almost forgotten, but each made a valuable contribution to the repertoire of the double bass and helped create a unqiue repertoire which deserves to be performed.

The 21st-century is awash with an amazing array of works for unaccompanied double bass, in all styles and idioms, with something to challenge and entertain in equal measure. Works of great invention and musical worth now sit side by side with established solo repertoire, works which explore every sound, effect and noise possible on the double bass. The form has attracted many great composers and players to write for the double bass over the past sixty years, but it wasn't always the case.

Apart from Dragonetti's 12 Waltzes for unaccompanied double bass, probably written in London in the early 1800s, but not published as a complete set until recent times, there are very few original works for unaccompanied double bass until we arrive at the great Bert Turetzky's repertoire which began in the late 1950s. Bert was a key figure in persuading composers to write for the instrument, but was also interested to explore the myriad colours, textures, timbres and sounds available to the modern bassist and composer.

One rare work for unaccompanied double bass which has fallen off the radar is the Konzertstuck Op.54 by Czech bassist-composer Gustav Laska. Probably composed in the late 19th-century, although there is no evidence for this apart from a relatively late opus number, it is one of the very few works for unaccompanied double bass composed between the death of Dragonetti in 1846 and the 'birth' of the contemporary double bass in 1957, thanks to composer William Sydeman and bassist Bert Turetzky. Why so few works for solo double bass? Possibly for the same reason that the Bach Cello Suites were ignored for many decades and even exist with piano accompaniments from the 19th-century. Obviously music for solo double bass or solo cello were not seen as viable works for the concert hall at this time and hence a dearth of repertoire and lack of interest by composers.

Gustav Laska is part of a long line of Czech player-composers who studied at the Prague Conservatoire and exported the Czech tradition and heritage to almost every corner of the globe. He was born in Prague on 23 August 1847 and died in Schwerin (Germany) on 16 October 1928, aged 81 and after a long and successful career. He studied at the Prague Conservatoire from 1861-7 with Josef Hrabe (double bass), Jan B. Kittl (music theory) and Josef Krejci (composition) and after graduation gave solo performances in Austria and subsequently became a member of the orchestra in Kassel, Germany. He travelled extensively in Europe and America, both as a soloist and orchestral player, and was Principal Double Bass at the Bayreuth Festival for many years.

Throughout his life Laska also taught, conducted and composed, alongside his solo and orchestral performances, and Franz Tischer-Zeitz who edited the Dittersdorf Concerto in the 1930s, was one of his students. In 1904 his Method for Double Bass Op.50 was published in Leipzig but is practically forgotten today - the fate of many similar double bass tutors. From 1878 until his death in 1928 he was a member of the Court Opera Orchestra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and was also choirmaster of the Schwerin Singakademie and church choir.

Laska was a prolific composer, writing in many genres, including three operas (Der Kaisersoldat, Sunde and Abu Seid), two orchestral overtures, two symphonies, sacred choral works, piano music, and many of works for double bass. The first recording of a work by Laska was probably his Wiegenlied Op.28, No.5 (Lullaby) by Serge Koussevitsky (double bass) and Pierre Luboshutz on 26 September 1929. Koussevitsky must have thought well enough of the piece to record it alongside some of his own miniatures and transcriptions of music by Eccles and Beethoven and it was probably a work he had performed during his years as a virtuoso double bassist.

The double bass music of Gustav Laska is well written for the instrument, featuring many technical challenges alongside lyrical and cantabile melodies, but much of it has fallen from the repertoire since his death almost 90 years ago. The smaller works are probably best described as salon or characteristic music, but of a high quality, and many are still worthy of performance today. His music often fuses the technical skills of the Czech School with the lyricism and virtuosity of Bottesini, although still with one foot very firmly in the Czech camp. The salon style is a little out of step with today's music making and sensibilities but fashions do change and there is a wealth of great music awaiting rediscovery by the curious and adventurous bassists.

Gustav Laska's Konzertstuck Op.54 is a very rare work indeed for unaccompanied double bass and is probably one of the few examples from the late 19th-century. It was published in Leipzig by C.F.Kahnt Nachfolger but there are no indications in the printed edition of when it was written or published and it has probably been out of print for over one hundred years. The front cover is a beautiful example of design at its 'fin-de-siecle' best, but otherwise the piece has been all but forgotten.

Lasting almost 12 minutes, this is a 'tour de force' for the double bassist, exploiting all the techniques that were available to the 19th-century bassist. Scale passages, arpeggios, double stops, lyrical melodies, pizzicato and glissandi all make their appearance and Laska uses the entire range of the double bass to create a piece of great contrasts and energy. The key of D major certainly helps with harmonics, open strings and double stops, but there are numerous technical challenges which cannot be faked and give an indication of how far standards had developed throughout the century.

The printed edition features Laska's own fingering suggestions and he suggests playing in solo tuning to create clarity and projection in all registers. If you are looking for something to challenge your technique - particularly the fast chromatic double stops in thumb position - then this may just the piece for you. Laska was obviously a fine player and knew the possibilities and limitations of the instrument well. He was 'heir to Simandl' rather than Bottesini, as the technical aspects can be traced back through the Czech heritage to the music of Hrabe, Simandl and Gregora, but with just a hint of Bottesini's magic thrown in for good measure.

Gustav Laska's Konzertstuck is worth the occasional performance today and deserves to be remembered for its rather unique place in the double bass history. The music is well written and idiomatic for the instrument and offers much to a bassist who is able to employ both musical and technical skills in equal measure. I hope that this short article may help to introduce the piece to a wider audience and to keep Laska's music alive today.

David Heyes [23 March 2015]

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Cat No. RM787
Supplier Code RM787
Price £6.50
ComposerGustav Laska
EditorDavid Heyes
CategoryDouble Bass Solo
PublisherRecital Music
SeriesHeritage Series
Difficulty level8, Advanced
ISMN 979-0-57045-787-8
EAN-13 9790570457878
Weight 89 grams
Published 13th April 2015
Availability 12 in stock
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