Audio: The contrabassoon vs. contraforte
In Thursday’s Washington Post: A new instrument arrives at the NSO: Contrabassoon player switches to “contraforte,” by Anne Midgette.
Audio sample: Erwin Schulhoff, "Bass Nightingale," first movement.
Lewis Lipnick, the contrabassoonist of the NSO, plays Schulhoff's piece on the contrabassoon, the instrument he has been playing for more than 40 years:
Lewis Lipnick plays the same piece on the contraforte, which he has owned for only a few weeks:
Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) wrote “Bass Nightingale” for the contrabassoon as a deliberate provocation to so-called aesthetes. “The spark of divinity can be present in a liverwurst just as well as in a contrabassoon,” he wrote in his preface to the work. “If everyone else sobs sweetly on the violin, then I always do the absolute opposite… I shamelessly declare that I was created from muck and that I love muck!” Hardly a welcoming introduction to a piece of music, but “Bass Nightingale” is a well-crafted little dramatic statement. This first of three movements, Lipnick says, “demonstrates both the most beautiful characteristics of either instrument as well as the ability of the player.”
At first hearing, the similarities between the contraforte and the contrabassoon are evident: both instruments hang out in the dark, lowest register of the double-reed universe. But you can soon hear the subtle differences in the timbre of the two instruments: the contraforte's sound is richer, prettier, smoother. You can also hear that the contrabassoon is more difficult to play, even in the hands of a top player like Lipnick. “The contrabassoon is more resistant and you have to do more to make it work,” Lipnick says. “On the contraforte, you can shade the dynamics from loud to soft so easily. That one decrescendo,” late in the movement, “you can’t do on a contrabassoon.” On the contraforte, he's able to focus less on mechanics and more on expression.
“People in the orchestra say it sounds like it’s much easier to play,” he adds. “It’s almost like a string instrument. You can play it so freely without the restriction of the instrument fighting you back.”
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