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Coming from a long line of Russian- and German-trained bassists, Gary Karr had been drawn to the instrument since the age of five, but of course was too small—even for an eighth-size bass played standing on an orange box! The start of his formal tuition coincided with Koussevitzky’s death, which he says gave him an affinity with the famed bassist-conductor. After Olga Koussevitzky heard his début performance, she gave to Karr the bass owned by her late husband. His solo career began in 1961, touring performances of Saint-Saëns’s ‘Le Cygne’ with the Chicago Little Symphony. He really came to prominence in 1962, as a featured artist in one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with an audience of seven million viewers. Since then Karr has performed with numerous major orchestras worldwide, released chart-topping discs, given televised recitals, and made two films: Amazing Bass which tells his own story, and a children’s series. Having retired from regular activities, he continues to run his annual four-week intensive course for bassists, KarrKamp.

Karr’s recordings demonstrate eclectic tastes, ranging from Bottesini and Paganini virtuoso pieces to experimental and free-thinking works. All reveal him to be a fine and truly thoughtful musician, with a distinctive ‘Karr’ sound present throughout the varied repertoire. His approach, using the German bow hold, is characterised by a number of post-Romantic tonal gestures, such as freedom in use of portamento, and a quite slow, wide and obvious vibrato.

The Paganini variations on Rossini’s ‘Dal tuo stellato soglio’ (1991) display great virtuosity, mostly in the cello register of the instrument. There is a playful air to this performance, Karr balancing well with the orchestra, and executing harmonics and fast scalic passages with aplomb.

More musically fulfilling, perhaps, are the Ramsier and Josephs works listed here. Paul Ramsier’s Divertimento Concertante on a Theme of Couperin (commissioned by Karr in 1965, recorded 1997) is in many ways a masterclass on extended virtuoso double-bass techniques, with fantastic percussive articulation and agile bowing in the March and Toccata Barrocca—the latter providing a scintillating conclusion to this varied, neo-classical and rather eccentric composition. The Recitative includes wonderful bell-like pizzicato, garnished with a powerful vibrato. Karr’s prowess in playing harmonics is again heard in the humorous Waltz Cinematique. The Wilfred Josephs Concerto (recorded 1992) is perhaps the most fully-unified work here, and a true double-bass concerto rather than one that requires the bass to impersonate a higher-pitched instrument. Here the slow, soulful opening is played with passion and intensity with some dramatic and virtuosic episodes. The slow movement continues these traits, fully exploiting the range of the instrument and Karr’s tonal mastery of its possibilities, whilst the finale (which bears a superficial resemblance to episodes in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2) brings the work to a powerful conclusion.

Serebrier’s Nueve (première recording, 2009) is a curious, almost cinematic work, integrating a variety of sound sources and special dispositions. With its use of a narrator, off-stage wordless choir, and jazz instruments and influences, it is an eclectic and capricious work full of vibrant colour. Karr’s bass solo lies at its heart and, although not an especially interesting bass part, symbolises Karr’s renowned strength of musical personality and powerful bearing as a successful and colourful bass soloist.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)

Role: Classical Artist 
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