The Brandenburg Bassist

The Brandenburg bassist


As an exciting new chamber ensemble prepares to issue its CD of Bach’s Concertos, the bassist Peter McCarthy explains to Richard Partridge how his role in these familiar works has undergone a thorough revision


FOR MANY MUSICIANS, AN IMPORTANT stage of their early career is the search for the single best instrument they can afford or desire, with which they form a partnership. Their style and sound develops as much from the possibilities offered by the instrument they have chosen as from their own playing technique. Not so the early music enthusiast, for whom each performance is a feat of detective and forensic analysis that requires them to adopt many instru ments and adapt to many playing styles. The aim here is to reconstruct the sound of each piece of music as closely as possible to how it might have been heard when it was composed, factoring in the manufacturing technology available at each particular time and place. To use only one instrument for this would be, like trying to make a fruit salad out of one banana, considered insufficient for the job.


Peter McCarthy, bass player in the recently formed European Brandenburg Ensemble (EBE), is a prime example of this fascination with authenticity. He uses no fewer than three instruments in the EBE’s new recording of J.S. Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos: two dating from the late 17th century and one from 1720. As Bach was born in 1685 and had completed the Brandenburgs by 1721, you couldn’t ask for instruments more contemporary with the works than these. Trevor Pinnock (the harpsichordist and director of the EBE) and McCarthy’s choices of instruments, pitch and playing techniques have been influenced by recent thinking on the bass player’s role in Baroque music and also new theories on how bass gut strings were made. Having been for many years a regular member of the English Concert, the ensemble that Pinnock founded and ran for 30 years until he retired from it in 2003, McCarthy obviously feels quite close to his former boss. Asked why he thinks that Pinnock has decided to add another recording of the Brandenburgs to the vast catalogue already available, he explains: “They are pieces that he loves. It’s his 60th birthday year and he obviously feels that he has something more to say about them. He was increasingly interested in the idea that the strength of the bass line could lie in the 8-foot rather than the 16-foot register’ (using a violone rather than a double bass). McCarthy says that while Pinnock has a reputation for being quite autocratic as a director, he approached this new recording, for which the harpsichordist has chosen musicians. from all over Europe, with very much a chamber-music spirit. The choices made regarding the bass parts were very much a collaborative effort. ‘I was surprised but pleased because I expected him to ask me just to play the double bass, but the fact. that there’s no 16-foot instrument on four out of the six concertos was as much his decision as it was my suggestion to him. That’s quite innovatory. For one of the concertos at least it’s the first time it’s been done on record.’


An ensemble musician rather than at soloist, McCarthy came to the bass quite late, while in the sixth form at school. Going to Leeds University in 1973, he studied composition under Alexander Goehr and bass with Peter Leah, for merly of the Hallé and the BBC Northern orchestras, who instilled in


‘To my mind the


German bow grip


opens the body -I felt I could


out to the public




with the audience with greater ease’


McCarthy the basic techniques that have seen him through to the present day: by the time he left university he was getting some good work as a bass player. The early music movement was all the rage at that time, and Goehr had ordered several early instruments for his students to play with, including a six-string violone that McCarthy was asked to pick up from the seller, as he had a car. As soon as I saw it, he says, ‘I was consumed with a passion for it. Soon he was travelling to the Wexford Opera Festival in Ireland to perform in a production of Cavalli’s Eritrea under Jane Glover to his knowledge the one and only time that


early music has been featured at that august institution.


Ever since then, McCarthy’s career has been driven by his enthusiasm for researching all aspects of the music he’s tackling, as well as a fascination for the bass instrument’s role in the ensemble. Recently his research has led him to conclude that the tasteful bass player’s role in certain repertory might be more limited than has hitherto been accepted (certainly more restricted than he would have been able to take on board as an enthusiastic young player). There were, he explains, no specialist bass players in the 17th century: “Those early basses




For the music of Monteverdi and his contemporaries in 16th- and early 17th century Italy, Peter McCarthy uses a copy of a six-string violone of 1585 by the Venetian maker Ventura Linarol (see picture 1). The instrument was made for the early music pioneer Francis Baines, who tuned it as a double-bass viol in D (an octave below the standard bass viol tuning). In order for the bottom strings to work at that pitch they had to be metal-wound: now known to be an anachronism, as metal winding was not introduced until the 1660s. McCarthy now uses all gut and tunes the violone to G, a fourth above Baines’s tuning, and plays at written pitch. He says that the instrument speaks much better at that pitch. Even at this high tuning (at the Venetian pitch of A=440 or higher) the low G string is somewhat woolly in sound, but the music of that period rarely dwells on the sixth string – the ‘business strings’, as McCarthy calls them, were the top five. For four of the Brandenburg Concertos (nos.2, 4, 5 and 6) he uses a German violone with a beautiful festooned outline, also tuned in G, and also played at 8-foot pitch (see picture 2). It has a shorter string length than the Italian violone, which means that the strings can be fatter and can be tuned to the lower pitch of A=415 (or even a semitone lower at A=400), and it has a fuller, less reedy tone. This is the kind of bass instrument that was used in Germany until the cello supplanted it at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. For these recordings, as he is playing at 8-foot pitch, McCarthy plays the whole bass part rather than a simplification.


Trevor Pinnock chose to use 16-foot instruments only on Brandenburg


were built for specific places – a church, ducal palace or prince’s court would order an instrument, and someone would be detailed to play it as and when it was necessary. There’s a report of one of Bach’s students matriculating from St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig: he was expected to play on various instruments, and the comment was that he played the violone very well, which might have meant that he played very tastefully and didn’t play all the notes. These days it seems to be letting the side down if you don’t play all the notes, but they might have seen that as a great lapse of taste. The great astonishment that greeted


basses and strings


Concertos no.1 in F major and no.3 in G major. McCarthy plays simplified bass lines on these works using two early double basses, with tunings adapted for their suitability for the keys of each concerto (see pictures 3 and 4).


McCarthy buys his thicker bass strings from George Stoppani’s Real Gut Strings in Manchester and goes to Charles Riche in France for thinner, higher strings. As these two makers both supply to order, he also uses Gamut in New York if he needs replacements in a hurry. Until recently, the art of making bass gut strings had been all but lost. Ordinary gut bass strings had to be very thick and inflexible to play at the correct depth (hence the need to use metal winding), but Stoppani has made great strides in developing flexi ble gut bass strings of a reasonable gauge using very high-twist gut. McCarthy points out that gut must have been very flexible in the early period, as contemporary paint ings show strings tied, not in a stiff coil as modern strings are, but in hanks tied with


a steep twist at each end. With so many expensive, hand-made gut strings on his instruments (the annual expense is more than £1,000), McCarthy conserves them as much as possible. A broken string will be repaired with another length of gut tied between the bridge and the tailpiece. Other strings end up as fret gut, and three broken violone strings have found service on his Baroque viola. There is only one metal-wound around-gut string on any of the instruments in his possession: the low A string on his seven-string French viol.


The instruments, right, are a selection from McCarthy’s collection.


Dragonetti’s arrival in London would be because he could play all the notes that were written on the page, and apart from that he could also play concertos – they were used to bass players playing quite simple parts up till then.”


As well as deciding on how much to play, McCarthy has devoted much thought as to what octave he should play in, and on what instrument (see boxout on page 49). If he thinks that using a double bass would be inappropriate he’s quite willing to say so, with an honesty that would seem to be counterproductive for


1 (right): Copy of a six-string violone of 1585 by the Venetian maker Ventura Linarol, Padua. Tuned G C F Adg for Italian music.


3 (left): Small German three-string bass by Leopold Widhalm, Nuremberg, 1720


someone trying to earn a living from play ing the instrument. ‘Of course,’ he says, if you’ve just been engaged as a bass player you have to sit there, play what they ask you and shut up. But shutting up is not something I’m particularly good at.’ His role in much Baroque repertory is now often one of simplification: rather than doubling the full cello part as would have been considered correct until quite recently, he con structs a reduction of the continuo line, perhaps playing only the root notes or the first and third beats of the bar –


2 (right):


Copy of a six-string Busch violone by Roger Dawson, with festooned outline. Tuned G C F Adg for music from the German speaking countries.


4 (left): Large late-17th century Northern Italian bass, usu ally tuned FA Dg (going upwards).



‘Every treatise


whatever is needed to provide a solid grounding to the harmony and to help propel the music forwards. ‘Every trea tise that mentions the large double bass, certainly until the mid-18th century, talks about simplification. Even Berlioz talks about it, because it used to drive him mad: in the early period there would only be one guy simplifying the part, but by the time Berlioz was conducting orchestras there could be six players all simplifying differently.’ Sometimes this leads to playing notes not given in the score: ‘If the cello part has an accented passing note, I will play the harmony note instead, which on paper looks like it would give you an awful clash, but if you do it, it works out fine.”


McCarthy’s enthusiasm for research has increased with the years and he seems only too happy to change his playing tech nique in order to accommodate the latest developments in the quest for authentic ity. Some years ago McCarthy decided to adopt the German side-held bow grip. Aside from its suitability for the early repertory, he says: to my mind the German grip opens the body out to the public – I felt I could communicate with the audience with greater ease. He is also an advocate of equal-tension stringing. In modern instruments the tension of each string gradually decreases from the top to the bottom. Recent research has shown that until the middle of the 18th century strings were usually equally tense across the instrument. McCarthy has found that his gut strings work better under equal tension, but his bowing needs to be quite robust-harder and faster-on the lowest strings or they won’t speak.


His dedication to the ensemble makes him a willing volunteer for managerial jobs that inevitably arise. When I visited him at his north-east London home he was preparing to take the St James’s Baroque ensemble to the Netherlands. His capacity as orchestral manager was manifest by the piles of musical scores and parts littered liberally about the place, in the process of being ‘organised’. He also plays with Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company and with Vivaldi specialists La Serenissima, and this year he is running the English Bach Festival on behalf of Lena LeLandi, as well as a successful monthly music series, Music in the Village, in his local


that mentions the large double bass, certainly until the mid-18th century, talks about simplification. Even Berlioz talks about it, because it used to drive him mad’


church in Walthamstow. (It’s my com munity work,’ he says, proudly.)


So here’s an example of a professional orchestral player who refuses to get stale and whose enthusiasm for his job is as fresh and vibrant as when he started out. As McCarthy says: ‘I may have reached my 50s [he’s 52] but I’m still getting new ideas and I’m keen to be led onwards by them. Whatever you do in life a new orthodoxy is created. Early music is always searching, which is good for personal and playing progress. That’s what I admire Trevor Pinnock for: in this Brandenburgs project he’s made a break for new and fresh territory, which isn’t bad at the age of 60. I hope to emulate him. DB

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