Florentine finesse

Stefan Krattenmacher asses a late eighteenth century bass of the Carcassi school

This bass is a rare example of the Florentine school of violinmaking at its best. Although the label inside reads 'Lorenzo Carcassi Fec. Dalla Madonna de Ricci in Firence, Anno 1765' it is very likely that the instrument was actually made at some later stage, probably towards the end of the eighteenth century. However, there's no debate over the quality of this very fine double bass.It was bought some years ago by the London Symphony Orchestra and is now played by Rinat Ibragimov, principal bass of the orchestra. When Ibragimov got it, he said that only the A-string sounded really full, but after some changes in the set up of the instrument including a new neck, it has now become his favourite instrument.  

Looking at the instrument's outline, its balance is immediately striking. The upper shoulders are sloping at the beginning but run smoothly into a well rounded upper bout. The middle bout is long and open,with the last few centimetres forming a delicate curve that gives the shape a lot of character and grace. The lower corner curve is much wider than the upper one. A pear-shaped lower bout gently slopes into a wide bottom curve which is still round at the lower block.

Despite the fact that the maker used three pieces of spruce for the table (not including the wing extensions on either side of the lower bout), a centre joint gives the middle line of the instrument. We can assume that a knot or some other fault in the wood on the bass side of the table made the maker add an additional joint on this side half way down. The wood is very finely grained at the centre joint, but it becomes very wide towards the edges.

The purfling stands at a common distance of 9 mm from the edge, but the large width of the inlay gives the edge work a completely unique appearance. The black stripe seems to be ebony or some stained hard wood, which is an unusual choice for that region and era. For the middle of the inlay, however, the usual willow has been used. The meeting at the corners is rather rushed and therefore not very neat.

A two-piece back, made of a fairly plain figured maple on a quarter cut, is still in very good condition. The bent at the back has been cut with a knife rather than a saw, a trait common to the Italian school, leaving a triangular shape cut at the edge of the back where the bent starts.

The ribs and the back are made with woods of similar quality, which is well-cut and strong but hardly figured. The rib joints at the middle bout, have been bent with a strong curve, showing off the maker's craftsmanship. Cremonese influences are clearly evident in the design of the arching, where the maker decided to create a flat and long straight line along the table length, running slowly towards the edges. Only at the middle bout is some fluting on display.

The f-holes are placed rather close together at distance of 14.2cm. The outward positioning of the holes gives the entire model more energy and swing. In relation to the short length of the f-holes the upper and lower wings look rather long. The nicks showing where the bridge should be placed are sharp and small.

The head is a perfect example of a maker having found his own style and with vast experience of how to handle his tools. Looking at the peg box from the front, the two sides run parallel up to the scroll giving the strings plenty of space to sit. At the back of the scroll the maker has designed his button in a large round circle. The side view also shows the parallel curves of the peg box and a rather squashed scroll where the middle of the ear is perfectly centred. The volute is deeply carved at the ear and runs into a flat surface at the outer level.

Linings on the inside of the body are made of willow and the small round blocks are probably made of pine. Using a soft and gentle glaze, the varnish is enriched with a beautiful yellow and orange pigment which lays on a golden brown ground.

The sound quality of this bass is comparable with a cello in the upper register: it is rich, powerful and has enough volume to perform as a solo instrument. Despite its small size, the bass has a dark as well as loud bottom end. Its easy response, silky sound colour and ability to be played quietly without losing the sound spectrum are the qualities which have seduced Rinalt.

Originally published in Double Bassist 24, Spring 2003
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