IDAGIO Meets ... Nicholas Schwartz

The double bass player, one half of the Oyster Duo, discusses the duo's new album, "Stolen Pearls".

Nicholas Schwartz and Anna Fedorova (Photo © Marco Borggreve)

Musical couple Nicholas Schwartz and Anna Fedorova – the Oyster Duo – have recorded a selection of arrangements for double bass and piano for their new album, "Stolen Pearls". Schwartz, an acclaimed soloist as well as a double bass player in Amsterdam's Concertgebouworkest, talks to IDAGIO about choosing the repertoire, commissioning new "gems" and taking up the cello.

How did you come up with the album?

Right since Anna and I met five-and-a-half years ago we wanted to play together. We started to come up with these pieces that we both loved, and which we tried to fit in on different programmes wherever we could. A lot of these pieces are just the ones we enjoyed playing the most, and which feature the double bass really well and show the different styles it can inhabit. It's a very worldly instrument, which can suit any kind of genre, and it's also very vocal, so we tried to include pieces from all sorts of different styles to highlight this diversity.

The double bass is renowned for going low, but you end up going quite high in the album…

Well, it does get, let's say, into the cello range, or at most the viola range, which is not always, let's say, the most natural part of the instrument. But the problem is mostly, in fact, that in the higher range it doesn't project very well. And the lower sounds, they can mesh in between the piano harmonies. So it's more suited for smaller venues – or on a recording. But with a sensitive pianist it makes a big difference, of course; Anna's very accommodating and we never have balance issues together!

Did you have any other criteria for the works you chose to "steal"?

I think in general for the pieces where we transcribe the rule has to be that it should sound as good as, if not better than, on the original instrument. I don't want to play something just for the sake of saying it's possible. It has to be something that suits, first of all, the range, but also the soul of the instrument. The Schumann Fantasiesstücke for instance…well, they sound great on any instrument, but it's certainly not worse on a double bass!

The Rachmaninoff song ("Oh cease thy singing, beautiful maiden") was one of Anna's suggestions, since it's one of her favourite songs by him, and although I don't really speak any Russian – just a few words – we found very quickly after reading it the first time that it almost sounds as if we're speaking the Russian language when playing these melodies!

And Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata. That must be a challenge…

Well, there's a lot of real estate to get through from the very bottom to the top in a couple of passages in the "Arpeggione", where it's like a metre of distance! But I think it's comparable to the cello in the level of technical difficulty, because we also have in this tuning an open high A string, the same as the cello. So it's actually similar where it is on the instrument, only one octave lower. And this tessitura, this range, actually suits the piece very well. Now that I'm so used to it on the double bass it sounds so tinny on other instruments!

What sort of reaction do you get from people who go to your concerts?

It's usually a big discovery for them, to hear the double bass and really see what it can do. Maybe they've seen it in the orchestra or the jazz club, but they don't realise that it's possible not only for it to be the foundation, but also to be the soloist. I often hear people say: "I love the cello, but now the double bass is my favourite instrument!" Or: "I never knew the double bass could sound like that!" A lot of people who are maybe less expert in music might not actually realise that it's so unusual, because it just sounds so nice and natural. And those who do, they are often amazed. 

Are composers now also realising what the double bass can do?

Composers have definitely noticed this, and in orchestral pieces we double bass players have many more demanding parts. But while the technical side is easy to understand, the acoustical challenges are sometimes something for composers to discover – with concertos, for example. But when Anna's father, Boris Fedorov, wrote his Six Confused Diffusions for double bass and piano, I hardly gave him any technical guidance, I said: "Write what you want and we'll find out later if it's possible!" He's composed a couple of really original and incredible pieces for us on double bass and piano. Channel Classics is actually going to record an album of his music, so that will be the next thing by us that comes out.

So there are now going to be some "pearls" for the instrument that you haven't had to steal?   

Yes, and since we started this recording, I actually started to play the cello as well. I've been really dedicating a lot of time to really try to play both instruments at the same level, and we've been working now with a couple of composers, including Boris Fedorov, on pieces where I jump between instruments. In one piece we've commissioned, by Andrew Blickenderfer, there are variations on the double bass that get more and more jazzy, as well as other variations that become more cellistic, where I switch to cello. It's all a new project, and in the future I hope to record a mix of double bass and cello repertoire – both separate and together.

"Stolen Pearls" is out on IDAGIO now.

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