Prentice-Balazs Anglo-Hungarian Collaboration Double Bass anno 2008 – Review

How come this instrument is a collaboration between a retired English maker and a young Hungarian maker?

Yes - good question. In November 2004 The Contrabass Shoppe purchased a large quantity of English sycamore for the construction of double basses and cellos from Ronald Prentice - a retired English bass maker. Along with the wood and other various items purchased were two partially completed double basses. In 2008 - Tony Houska - the Director of The Contrabass Shoppe commissioned the young Hungarian maker Akos Balazs to finish the two instruments off.

Hmm interesting. Exactly how partially complete was this instrument?

This particular instrument consisted of an entire rib assembly complete with corner blocks, a two piece back and a pre-routed neck assembly.

So still an awful lot of work to finish the instrument then?

Yes indeed.

Did Ron sell you any wood to make the table?

No. Unfortunately he had already sold off his remaining stock of spruce sometime earlier.

So where did you get the wood from to make the table?

In the same month that the sycamore was purchased from Ron we were able to purchase several superb matching pairs of even-grained spruce from some Hungarian wood traders. We were informed by the merchants that the wood emanated from Bosnian and Herzegovina (former Yugoslavia) and that it had already been naturally seasoned for five years.

So why did you give the work to Akos Balazs?

Well simply because we think that he is a good maker and that his work represents excellent value for money. If you search on our website for Akos Balazs - you will see several of his instruments that are either for sale or which have already been sold.

Do you have any info on Ronald Prentice?

Ron Prentice was born in 1932 in London. After an early playing career on bass guitar and double bass Ron opened a shop in Enfield, Middlesex where he made, restored instruments and sold accessories. Ron`s first instruments were mainly viols - but when his work found particular favour with players in the London orchestras he began to make more modern instruments. Orders for new instruments - particularly cellos and double basses - began to flood in - so in order to enable him to concentrate on his making without disturbance Ron moved to Ash Priors, Nr Taunton, Somerset where he worked for most of his career.

Where did Ron study making?

Ron travelled over to Germany for approximately four years to study privately with the maker Karl Roy.

Who was Karl Roy?

In 1960 Karl Roy (b-1933, d-2013) became a tutor at the Mittenwald School of Violin Making. In 1972 he became the director of the school. From 1973 to 2008 Roy also taught in the USA, served as a judge at various violin making competitions, was an active member of the International Society of Violin & Bow Makers and wrote several publications including "Jakob Stainer; Leben und Werk des Tiroler Meisters 1617-1683" published by Verlag E Bochinsky, Frankfurt/M in 1986 (ISBN 3-923639-69-4), which he co-authored with Walter Senn.

How many basses did Ron make?

During the 1970s-80s Ron became recognised as a specialist bass maker and regularly had a two-year waiting list on orders. Ron is credited with a total output of 50 double basses that were constructed from excellent Sitka spruce and maple that he sourced in Germany and beautifully flamed English sycamore. All the instruments were made using an inside mould and finished with a variety of varnishes which were made to recipes used at Mittenwald by Carl Roy.

Did you ask Ron where he got his stock of Sycamore from?

Yes - if you are buying wood to make instruments it is one of those questions that you do tend to ask.

OK - so what did he say?

"With regard the wood I bought a very large log from John Boddy in Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire around 1975. When felled and trimmed the log measured 5.5m long and 1.22m in diameter. This was cut up for me at their saw mill and delivered to me in Somerset by their transport".

A diameter of 1.22 meters is a really massive log. Did Ron need to acquire any more wood after that?

Ron continued; "Yes - the following year somebody told me of a dealer who had some good logs in Scotland so I drove all the way up to somewhere near Inverness to see them. They were all felled and lying in a field. I checked them all by taking off bark samples, selected the best five and bought them. If I remember the logs were around 80cm in diameter. They were then sent to a sawmill in Norwich by train where they were cut up to my specifications. I then hired a lorry in Taunton and drove up to collect all the various blocks".

How did Ron use the wood?

"I kept all the finest wood for basses and cellos. The smaller pieces I used to make gambas, violins and violas. I sold off what I didn't want and burnt all the offcuts in the wood burning stove in the house. I made 50 double basses. Not all were swell back - because there were pieces for flat backs as well".

So Ron was a fairly prolific maker?

Yes - in the annals of more recent English bass making history Ron is a well recognised and respected maker.

I'd be interested to learn some more about Ron. Is there anything in print available?

Yes - Ron was featured in a well produced and highly informative book about professional violin makers in Britain. It was entitled "The Violin Makers - Portrait of a Living Craft" and was written by Mary Anne Alburger and first published in 1978 by Victor Gollancz Ltd, London (ISBN 0 575 02442 9). The book is particularly engrossing to read because the writing takes the form of actual interviews with the various makers, restorers and dealers.

In Alburger's chapter about Ron - is there anything that you find particularly interesting?

Yes - the paragraphs on Ron's bass playing days, his association with Karl Roy and his methods of varnishing are all really absorbing. However - if I had to pick out one thing - it would have to be his sentence regarding the pricing of his own instruments. This pricing would have been valid for the year 1977 or 78 when compilation of the book would have taken place prior to publishing in 1978. On page 111 Ron comments; "I charge about £920 plus VAT for a violin, £1000 for a viola, £1600 for a cello, and £2500 for an Italian-style double bass".

Wow - with the then rate of 8% VAT added to the price - Ron's instruments really were a lot of money at the time. Can you put the cost of one of his double basses into some sort of context for me?

Yes - Contrabass Director Tony Houska has the catalogue of a Phillips (now Bonhams) Musical Instrument sale that he attended on the 21st April 1977. There were four double basses in the auction. Buyers premium was not applicable at this sale so the prices shown are the hammer price.

    • Lot 212 An Italian Bass by Pierguiseppe Esposti, Cremona dated 1974 - fetched £550.
    • Lot 213 A Modern Chamber Bass - fetched £120.
    • Lot 214 A German Four-String Bass circa 1870 - fetched £200.
    • Lot 215 A Good Four-String Double Bass by Paul Claudot circa 1860 - fetched £620.

Do you have any more price references?

Yes - on the classified page at the back of the January 1976 "The Strad" magazine there are four double basses listed for sale as follows;

    1. Riviere & Hawkes Double-Bass Concert 1889. £375 ono.
    2. Double Bass, threequarter size. Lott or Fendt. Excellent condition. £1000 ono.
    3. Hawkes Concert D / Bass. Good sound. £550.
    4. Pollmann, threequarter size, four string D/Bass 1972 model, £800.

How would you say this double bass has turned out?

The instrument has turned out very, very well indeed.

What are the best aspects of the instrument?

There are many aspects that you will like and appreciate as follows:

    1. The English model: The small violin outline model with nicely raked upper shoulders and carved back is well conceived and executed. 
    2. The proportions: Excellent proportions make this instrument a delight to play.
    3. The wood: Beautiful English sycamore. Really nicely flamed and well matched.
    4. The varnish: The transparent antique effect medium brown varnish over a yellow ground is absolutely gorgeous. 
    5. The fittings: All the fittings are top quality. There is an A1 fingerboard from Germany that has been specially shaped to enable a top F to be played on the G-string. There is a set of well engineered cogs and an endpin unit - also from Germany plus there is a top quality Chevalets Despiau bridge from France fitted with smooth running aluminium adjusters.

What about the sound?

Rich tonal qualities with just the right amount of projection.

Will the instrument suit me?

If you are currently studding the solo-rep hard, practicing your orchestral excerpts diligently and looking forwards to getting your first job - then the good looks and sound of this instrument will certainly benefit your cause.

Can you provide a summary?

To come across an instrument that has been started by one person and then finished by someone else who lives in a totally different country and who is of a totally different generation and background is definitely unusual. In this instrument we are pleased to say that the Anglo-Hungarian collaboration has worked out well above expectations.

How about a final summary?

This is an instrument that looks good, feels good and plays good. As such - this is an instrument that will appeal to a great many players.

How about a final, final summary?

This is an instrument that is destined to endure the test of time and ultimately become an antique of the future.

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