"Bach to Bass-ics"

Elizabeth Harré: double bass.  Eppie Churcher: piano.

Iffley Church Hall, Saturday April 25th 2015


For many of the audience, there was a special poignancy about this concert. It had been scheduled initially for February the 8th, but as that date approached, Elizabeth's many friends, neighbours and students were aware that her mother Hettie Harré was in her last illness, and that Elizabeth must be under great strain. As it happened, Hettie died on the morning of the planned concert, which was then postponed.

Hettie was a real friend to music and musicians in Iffley, and is much missed. Elizabeth has her indomitable spirit, energy, and sense of fun, and she brought that to her concert, where I am sure many of us had Hettie in our thoughts.

We also knew that the concert could not be put off for too long, as Eppie is expecting her second child very soon... but she happily settled her pregnant bulge at the keyboard and played with her usual panache... These two musicians have a long-standing friendship, and the warmth of their rapport comes over in the music they perform together.

Elizabeth had carefully prepared a programme which would take us through the history of solo music for the double bass, and she gave us a historical briefing as we went along. She could have included works written for other instruments and arranged for bass, and had she done so we could have had some great composers and familiar pieces, but no, she was keen to choose repertoire written for bass, and this meant many of the pieces were written by bass players, including some of the virtuoso players and teachers of the instrument in the early 19th century. I'm sure that most of the audience (excluding double-bass players, of whom there were quite a few!) hadn't heard any of this music before, or heard of any of the composers.

It is always interesting to be introduced to something new, and the programming was thoughtful and varied. Unfortunately much of the programme was fairly second-rate musically speaking, though effective as a means of showing off what can be done with a double bass... What can be done with a double bass is quite surprising: it has a very touching lyrical quality when played legato, and a gruff, moody eloquence when required to be dramatic. For all its size, it is a quiet instrument, and in complicated passages it is quite hard to make it speak clearly: the overall impression is of a large, shy, rather awkward, solemn creature trying to express tenderness, and maybe a little sensitive when laughed at...

This natural reticence in the instrument led to balance problems in some pieces, especially in the beautiful Brahmsian Sonata by Miŝek which ended the concert. The piano writing here is rich and dense, and it is hard to bring out the voice of the bass. Contemporary composer Bryan Kelly understands far better the need for clear textures in the piano, and the need to give the bass plenty of space in which to be heard. His Caliban and Ariel was for me far and away the best piece of music in the programme, and got the most effective performance. Both players could use their full dynamic range without creating balance problems, and they enjoyed to the full the very contrasting characters depicted in the piece.

Another favourite moment was the 'blues' bit of John Clayton's piece Bach to Blues, where at last, in the jazz passages, we got the full effect of uninhibited pizzicato bass, refreshingly direct and simple! The 'Bach' bit  of the piece, fiendishly hard passagework taken from Bach keyboard music, showed us how easily the intonation of the bass can go off the rails, even in the hands of an experienced player! You need to be calm and keep your nerve, and Elizabeth did this, though there were edge-of-the-seat moments in this piece, and in some of the other demanding virtuoso pieces.

The Church Hall was almost full for this concert, and the audience appreciative. We are all pleased and proud to have such accomplished performers in our community, and to have such lovely venues for our concerts. Not only was there a large turnout from our local audience, but a significant number of people new to the society. Good news all round!