Colin Carr: Why You Shouldn’t Always Trust Recordings

carr-colin-09

In the year 2000, I was invited to attend a Cello Symposium at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. The man who initiated this symposium, famed Israeli cellist Yehuda Hanani, was a teacher at CCM at the time. The symposium was to present top cello students playing one or another of the Beethoven Cello Sonatas. In addition to Hanani, there were two other professional cellists present to act as artistic guides and mentors to the young cellists.

I’m sorry to say that I forget the name of one of the two guest cellists. He was very good and I enjoyed his performances, but they just missed being world class (sorry, not meaning to hurt anyone’s feelings here). But the other cellist was British-born Colin Carr, who at the time I had never heard of.

One of the students was playing a movement from one of the sonatas, and not much to Carr’s liking. He called out some suggestions in phrasing from the back of the hall, but the student just couldn’t grasp what he was talking about. So he went up on the stage, too the cello and the bow out of the hands of the student, and started playing it the way he felt it should go.

Now, one thing I have to tell you is that the way the student played the cello it sounded OK but not exceptional. As soon as Carr began playing it, however, that exact same cello suddenly opened up its tone and blossomed out like a pumpkin exploding our of a poppy. I couldn’t believe my ears. The tone he produced was so rich and so deep that it sounded like a river gushing. Later in the same session, Hanani and the other cellist also showed other students how to play their music, and although their tones were far superior to what the pupils were producing, neither one could match Carr’s humongous amplitude of tone.

The climax of this weekend-long seminar was a concert on Sunday afternoon in which the three “name” cellists would rotate the five cello sonatas as well as the two Handel Variations. Carr was scheduled to practice his sonata on Saturday evening in one of the practice rooms at the college. I asked him if I could sit quietly and listen, and he agreed.

That hour I spent in the practice room was a virtual master-class in cello playing. Carr and his accompanist went through the sonata movement by movement, but every so often Carr would stop the rehearsal and go back over a certain phrase, or even just a single bar, because he didn’t like the way it was coming out. I thus heard his interpretation “come together” than evening, and I also had the chance to hear his unbelievably sonorous, golden tone up close.

The same thing happened in the rotating-cellists concert. As soon as Carr took the stage and began playing, his cello somehow sounded twice as loud as Hanani’s or the other cellist’s. Artistically, they were all on the same high level, but the mind-boggling range of volume and colors that Carr could draw from his instrument were something that will stick in my mind forever.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that he had made very few studio recordings, and the ones that I heard didn’t sound much like him. Oh, they reproduced his phrasing and style, all right, but that vast, cavernous sound he produced was greatly diminished. It put me in mind of what it was like to go hear Richard Tucker sing in person and then listen to his records. The sound of the voice was similar but not exactly the same, and the range of volume and color was diminished.

naumburg-recSince then, I have run across exactly one Carr recording that sounds like him, and that, it turns out, was his first: the 1982 recordings he made after he won the 1981 Naumburg Foundation award for cello. Yet these recordings were out of print at the time, and in fact were not reissued until 2008—as digital downloads only in a set of five albums devoted to the instrumental winners of the Naumburg award. And here’s the ironic thing: Carr’s name and photo aren’t even on the front cover of the album. I rather expected that violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who won the violin category the same year that Carr won for cello, was on the cover, but the other performer pictured there was clarinetist Charles Neidich. So much for Colin Carr’s latter-day reputation.

Carr is currently Professor of Music, Cello and Chamber Music at Stony Brook University in New York. He has played with major orchestras including the Concertgebouw, Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, the orchestras of Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, Philadelphia, Montréal and all the major orchestras of Australia and New Zealand, and for that I am grateful. But ask the average music lover to name the top five cellists of today, and once they get past Yo-Yo Ma you’ll be lucky if they can come up with Steven Isserlis or Zuill Bailey, both of whom I also admire greatly (I was also lucky enough to see Bailey in person, playing with Awadagin Pratt). Most of the time they’ll probably name a now-deceased cellist like Jackie du Pré, Casals, Rostropovich or Fournier. On the Ranker website’s list of the 50 greatest cellists of all time, Carr doesn’t even make the cut (Bailey is #9). And as I said, Carr has a very small discography, and most of it doesn’t sound much like him, though he comes close in his set of the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas on MSR Records.

Fortunately, he does sound more like himself on that Naumburg Competition CD, and better yet, I’ve managed to find all the tracks on it available for free streaming on YouTube. In addition to capturing more of his tone, these recordings also capture more of his control of dynamics, which is what knocks you out when you hear him in person. Of course, you will still have to use your imagination a bit regarding his massive sound: if they recorded him the way he actually plays, his cello tone would come close to drowning out the piano, even with a microphone. But at least you can get a good idea of just how splendid and unbuttoned his playing can be at its best.

Here are the links (click on titles or movements to get the videos); all performances are with pianist Francis Grier:

Fauré: Élégie in B-flat min., Op. 24

Debussy Cello Sonata in D minor
I. Prologue: Lent, sostenuto e molto risoluto
II. Sérénade: Modérément animé &
III. Finale: Animé, léger et nerveux

Fauré: Romance, Op. 69 (listen to those low notes!)

Fauré: Papillon for Cello & Piano, Op. 77

Franck: Sonata in A for Cello & Piano (alternate of Violin sonata, arr. Jules Delsart)
I. Allegro ben moderato
II. Allegro
III. Ben moderato: Recitative – Fantaisie
IV. Allegretto poco mosso

This is as good an indicator as any as to why you shouldn’t always trust records to show you the full scope of an artist’s ability. Sometimes, no matter how good the intentions, the microphone simply misses a dimension that certain artists possess, and Colin Carr is one of these.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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