“Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear.” This quotation, an evocative description of God from Book 3 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, intrigued composer Missy Mazzoli, who writes “I love the impossibility of this phrase.” It’s a phrase, however, which she feels describes the “dark but heartrending” sound of the double bass. She adopts it for the title of her terrific double bass concerto, given its European premiere by co-commissioners Aurora Orchestra as part of a fabulous programme which frequently hit the heavenly heights.

Ben Griffiths performs <i>Dark with Excessive Bright</i> © Nick Rutter
Ben Griffiths performs Dark with Excessive Bright
© Nick Rutter

The evening opened with a warm rendition of Elgar’s gentle Serenade for Strings, violins split, the playing clean, with minimal vibrato. Conductor Nicholas Collon set fluid tempi, making sure the Larghetto never slipped into sentimentality. Mellow viola tone impressed, as did the incredible lower string resonance from just three cellos and one double bass.

With period trumpets and timpani adding military thwack to proceedings, the orchestral tutti which opens Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21 in C major signalled a taut, vital approach. Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son, a ray of sunshine in a lemon yellow gown, right sleeve billowing softly, gave an earnest, unfussy account, with crystal clarity to her runs. She has the most expressive face; sometimes frowning, sometimes smiling, often silently singing along to herself. She slammed on the brakes a few times in the first movement, as if to tame Aurora’s ardour, but the famous Andante was affectionately shaped and her kittenish phrase to open the Allegro vivace assai finale showed that she does humour too.

Yeol Eum Son © Nick Rutter
Yeol Eum Son
© Nick Rutter

Double bass players rarely enjoy the concerto limelight, so there was perhaps a hint of false bravado about the way Ben Griffiths sauntered to the front of the Kings Place stage, chewing gum, to perform Dark with Excessive Bright. By the end, such is the physical workout the composer sets, he was exhaling with sheer relief, sweat dripping from his brow. During its 13-minute span, Mazzoli draws the double bass out of its natural habitat, lurching from subterranean depths up to stratospheric heights, the soloist frequently playing from the treble clef. It was like a robust Wagnerian bass singing falsetto, Griffiths practically hugging his instrument to reach the high-wire notes. Drawing on Baroque idioms, Mazzoli takes the bass on a journey through the centuries, often bringing out lyrical qualities from the upper register. Lower down, Griffiths sawed heroically through many gruff arpeggios until dramatically sliding to sul ponticello whispering.

The bass is accompanied by strings alone, engaging in percussive col legno ricochets, queasy glissandos, and pizzicatos plucked with paperclips. There was a lovely collegiate moment where Aurora’s bass, Elena Hull, took over Griffiths’ helium-filled F sharp, sustaining it solo, an eerie echo from the back of the platform. There’s not exactly a huge canon of double bass concertos; players should be queueing up to perform Mazzoli’s.

Nicholas Collon conducts Aurora © Nick Rutter
Nicholas Collon conducts Aurora
© Nick Rutter

There was no rest for Griffiths, though, immediately thrown back into the ring for the zingiest Beethoven Eight I’ve heard for years. This was music-making at its most joyous, leader Maia Cabeza practically leaping from her chair at times and, at the start of the finale, two cellists suffered a fit of the giggles. Despite his economical gestures, left hand often redundant, Collon led an exuberant, driven account. The metronomical Allegretto scherzando bristled with wit and the horns glowed in the third movement Trio. Aurora scampered through the hell-for-leather finale, with thrilling timpani volleys in the coda. Cheers all round for a splendid evening.

*****