If you began to forget what instrument Xavier Foley was playing Friday night at the American Philosophical Society, it’s understandable. We’re just not used to hearing a double bass player so blissfully unaware that dazzling virtuosity is usually someone else’s job.
The double bass literature doesn’t brim with well-known solo works, but that didn’t trouble this spectacular player, who in his Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital debut had a considerable assist from pianist Sejoon Park and violinist Eunice Kim. Foley remade the repertoire to suit his purposes.
Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in E Minor, K. 304, is hard to separate from the instrument for which it was written, but Foley — 24 years old, a Curtis Institute graduate and member of the Astral Artists roster — did an admirable job. The transcription works, even if there are moments that grate on your ear-memory when the immediacy and carrying power of the violin would have been better.
Foley offers compensations. The second movement was perhaps too slow, but in the major-key middle section he showed what sweetness can come with quiet power. Park’s smooth, untroubled phrase-shaping — the pianist is an Astral artist, too — had much to do with setting the mood.
Schubert’s Sonata in A Minor, D. 821, went down easier, and not necessarily because the instrument for which it was originally written, the obsolete six-string arpeggione, is almost never the one on which you hear it played. What was clear is that this music means a lot to Foley. There was still the question of carrying power; here it fell slightly short of what we are used to in this piece, which is now core to the cellist’s repertoire. But Foley is an expressive player. He took certain expressive freedoms in the first movement, beautifully rendered, and ended the movement with an emphatic stroke. He brought great meaning to the (relatively) high main melody of the second movement.
He composes, too. The Spirit of the Ice Bear, for double bass and violin, was a winsome mix of Native American and bluesy material, giving both instruments stretches of improvisatory-sounding wanderings. It was high energy, and great fun.
The fun was topped by the Bottesini Gran Duo Concertante for violin, double bass and piano. Yes, the piece spends some time clearing its throat and, yes, aspects of it are corny. But the virtuosity is a thrill. Double bass is not generally called upon for delicately patterned accompaniment, but Foley rolled out the etude-like arpeggios with great elegance. Kim was every bit as impressive.
The piece is slightly comic and operatic, and in lesser hands it would be funny for tripping up its players. As it was, the smiles were unavoidable because the players shouldn’t have been doing it all so easily, and yet here they were.