I first came across Gary Karr, when, as a very young
record collector, I was given a recording of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival
of the Animals conducted by Bernstein (BRG 72072). On this 1962
LP Bernstein had deliberately selected some outstanding teenage musicians
to play the work and Gary Karr was one of them. In fact he played The
Swan normally heard on the cello but here on the double bass and
Bernstein was obviously most moved by his performance as he said in
his narration on the record. Aged only 19, Karr was already obtaining
a uniquely strong, distinctive, lyrical and eloquent sound out of an
instrument, which no one was taking seriously. It has been Karr’s obsession
to reverse the public’s perception of this heavy, grumbling instrument
and he is well on the way. He is the first full-time professional solo
double-bassist in history according to his website and I for one would
not like to disagree.
This 1992 recording is released in Europe for the first
time. It is interesting to consider that, now 10 years on, Gary Karr
has gone on to bigger and even greater things although his performances
in Britain are still all too rare.
I will go through these three works in turn starting
with Stuart Sankey’s extraordinary Carmen Fantasy. This
is not of course the first of its ilk. Just recently there has been
one recorded by the late Buxton Orr. Other more famous string examples
would include the one by Sarasate. Sankey’s is a very clever and enjoyable
example using a large orchestra. After a portentous start the bass has
a virtuoso cadenza. Immediately the problem of recorded balance rears
its head. You need to turn up the volume here having kept it lower for
the opening. This difficulty haunts the entire piece. I hasten to add
that the composer may be trying to use the bass as if it were a cello;
indeed I asked myself if the piece would work even better on a cello.
Similar questions and problems of recorded balance
are found in the Grieg. Here, Karr has taken the cello original
and transcribed and voiced it more effectively for the bass. He then
asked Joe Horovitz to orchestrate it which he has done with clarity
and imagination. The excellent notes by Cyrus Meher-Homji explain that
the transcription "came about partly through Gary Karr’s concern
that there was little in the double bass repertory that was as familiar
to audiences as opposed to some of the more well-known concertos."
This is all very laudable, and really quite successful. But I then heard
the original Cello Sonata. This is played by David Finckel and Wu Han
on a very fine BBC Music Magazine CD - well worth seeking out. What
is lacking from the new version is the emotional power at the climaxes.
The tuning is also unsure, even more significant with an orchestra to
contend with. Incidentally the finale in the bass version is a clever
reworking and shortening of the original so as to avoid some particularly
To see how a double bass concerto can really
work try Wilfred Josephs’ 30-minute concerto. This is well worth
listening to carefully. I would also draw readers’ attention to the
concerto by Peter Maxwell Davies on now-deleted Collins 13962. The Josephs
begins with a heartfelt recitative, which could almost be a tone-row.
The opening movement is the longest and reaches a grand climax. It is
marked Allegretto but seems to show little tempo contrast with
the second which is marked Adagio ma non troppo. The finale is
a Moderato marziale which reminded me a little of the BBC television
score Josephs wrote in the late ’60s for the ‘The Great War’ series.
Its use of the very bottom register is most telling, especially when
accompanied by bassoon and trombone. There is an element of the circus
here, which the concerto needs at this point. The bass in this ten-year-old
recording seems too recessed and the brass has been vividly recorded
so that a brass chord bounces out of the speakers rather like a raspberry.
So, all in all, I can’t get too excited by this disc,
but for aficionados of the bass or indeed of modern concertos this would
at the very least be an interesting purchase.
See also THE
SINGING DOUBLE BASS by Gary Karr