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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.”

By Mike McPhate  | October 13, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Washington, news  
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Wow! what a difference. Especially the soft notes. And in tune, too. The old contrabassoon may soon join the natural horn on the back shelf. Unless, of course, the contraforte costs so much no one can afford it....

Posted by: msh41 | October 14, 2010 7:43 AM | Report abuse

It's contrarian of me, but... I kinda like the timbre of the contrabassoon better. It's a bit ruder. In an appealing way. :-)

Posted by: RebeccaHartong | October 14, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

The contrabassoon does sound better to me, too! Could it just be that Lipnick has had more experience playing it?

Posted by: gauthier310 | October 14, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

I think the contrabassoon sounds much better. The contraforte sounds more like a baritone saxophone.

Posted by: screwjob21 | October 14, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

A contrabassoon DOES sound like a fart! Actually a contrabassoon sounds like me after eating at Taco Bell.

Posted by: montana123 | October 14, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

I like the contraforte better. Far more refined sound, more like a logical extension of a bassoon in terms of its color and timbre. What I would be curious to know is how it sounds in the various Orchestral works that have featured parts for contrabassoon, then draw some conclusions as to its viability for replacing the contrabasson.

Posted by: kingrob76 | October 14, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

To me, the contraforte sounds like a cheap contrabassoon. Sorry, folks, but I like the contrabassoon better. Much more like the instrument I heard in high school, college and after college. Give me that more 'gruff' sound anytime.

Posted by: Sisko24 | October 14, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

I approve of the contraforte for its "prettier" sound. But, I detect no "flatulence" in the playing of the contrabassoon.

By the way, this is a good, local article. The Post can do real local journalism if it lets its reporters do so.

Posted by: TheChileanPresidentIsMuchBetterRespondingToDisastersThanObama | October 14, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse

I like the contraforte on the "high" notes, but actually prefer the contrabassoon on the lower notes. That said, it does sound like the contrabassoon is fighting the performer, perhaps that's part of its perverse charm.

Posted by: ancient_mariner | October 15, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Maybe my ears are getting older, but I didn't think they were all that different, and I didn't really have a preference between them.

Posted by: stevefoerster | October 15, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I hear that abrupt register shift in both instruments. Hearing the contrabassoon, I hoped that might be smoothed out. Listening to the contraforte, I guess not.
Is it the equivalant of trombone pedal tones? Much edge, less tone.
I'll have to take Mr. Lipnick's word that it's easier to play.

Posted by: buxtehude99hotmailcom | October 15, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

This was really interesting! I've never even heard a contrabassoon played solo before (that I know of) so I probably have no business at all commenting, but there was a very noticeable differnence to me in the lower resigters. The contraforte seemed much more -- I don't know how to put it -- controlled and sweeter? Great article. What a welcome respite from all the right wing political fruitcakes articles!

Posted by: seaduck2001 | October 16, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Sorry for the typo - should be "registers" -- that will teach me to preview before hitting the submit key!!!

Posted by: seaduck2001 | October 16, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

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