Farley Pearce is probably most familiar to San Francisco audiences for his performances on historical instruments in ensembles such as Philharmonia Baroque, Magnificat, and the Sex Chordae viol concert. Today he came to Old St. Mary’s Cathedral to give a Noontime Concerts™ recital on a more “modern” double bass. However, as he informatively introduced his instrument to the audience, it became quickly apparent that this was not the sort of bass one would encounter in a performance by the San Francisco Symphony on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall. Those closest enough to see it would have quickly observed that it was fretted, like its viol predecessors. Furthermore, while most basses follow the viol convention of tuning the strings in fourths, this one used a combination of fourths and thirds. As Pearce demonstrated, this facilitated not only chords but also extended passages of parallel thirds.
One could appreciate these features in the first selection on Pearce’s program, the second of two bass concertos by Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf. This turned out to be a delightful piece of writing with no shortage of either virtuosity or wit. One would probably expect as much from the man who played first violin in a string quartet with Joseph Haydn on second violin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on viola, and Johann Baptist Wanhal (Dittersdorf’s student) on cello. An informed listener would also not have been surprised to find a couple of Haydn’s tropes creeping into Dittersdorf’s score. For his part, Pearce gave all of this a spirited account, guaranteed to present his virtuosity in the best light while also eliciting a chuckle or two.
He then turned to an arrangement (a bit free) of piano music by Dittersdorf’s viola partner, the K. 485 piano rondo in D major. Bearing in mind that some of the more pianistic passages were elided, Pearce did very well by the melodic content, honoring Mozart’s high spirits as convincingly as he had those of Dittersdorf. Pearce did the same for an Allegro movement by Franz Schubert, which he claimed was originally written for violin (even if I have to confess that I could not place it in my memory). This was then followed by an Adagio that was actually written for bass, which was no surprise since the composer, Johannes Matthias Sperger, led the bass section for the Mecklenburg Schwerin Hofkapelle.
Pearce then took a break, allowing his accompanist, the pianist David Borac, to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 971 “Italian” concerto for solo keyboard. Following the diverse approaches to expressiveness that Pearce had summoned from his instrument, Borac’s performance came across as disconcertingly featureless, thoroughly agile when it came to striking all the keys properly but with very little by way of phrasing or dynamics to give any sense of an expressive interpretation.
Pearce then returned to perform a short piece by Domenico Dragonetti. Sperger and Dragonetti were near contemporaries. Between the two of them, they established a foundation of virtuoso technique for the bass. While their music is seldom performed today, they paved the way for the composer whose bass music is almost always included on both recital and concerto programs, Giovanni Bottesini, who was known in his day as the Paganini of the double bass. It was thus a bit impressive that, by taking this historical perspective, Pearce could pull off a thoroughly engaging bass recital without playing a note of Bottesini. He then concluded with what might best be described as a “programmed encore,” a bass arrangement of Leroy Anderson’s “Plink, Plank, Plunk!,” which, as the title suggests, provided an opportunity for showing off pizzicato technique, the only virtuoso turn to have been elided by the rest of the program.