An afternoon in Budapest with Professor Lajos Montag, noted contrabassist
One day in 1964 the ‘fixer*’ for the London Symphony Orchestra asked me if I would play with them in Budapest, Hungary. The concert was to be in the famous Franz Liszt Akadamie. I had played there a few times and always enjoyed my visits so I accepted and decided that when I was in Budapest I would try to make contact with Professor Montag whom I had never met before.
Montag was renowned as principal bass of the opera and professor of double bass at the Budapest Conservatory. He was widely known throughout Europe as an exceptional player
The orchestra had a seating rehearsal on the morning we arrived. Seating rehearsals never take a long time, the idea being only to ensure that the orchestra is comfortable on stage and also to test the acoustics so that adjustments in the dynamics of the music may be made by the musicians.
After the rehearsal I went to the entrance to the concert hall and found the professor waiting for me; he greeted me enthusiastically and suggested that we go to his apartment for a bite to eat, which we did.
Montag in those days appeared to be in his mid fifties. He was shortish, balding, with dark hair and was rather portly, but very energetic.
After a delicious meal he suggested that I might like to see some of his compositions for the double bass, many of which I had not seen before. This took a considerable time and he then asked me if I would like to hear him play, and I enthusiastically agreed.
He played with the German bow which is common all over eastern Europe. In England, France and Italy most players play, as I do myself, with the French (or Bottesini) bow. In my day the French regarded it as a matter of national honour that they played with the French bow, referring to the German bow as the “meat saw”, but I have noticed that now, even in France, the German bow is slowly being introduced. However, I was very impressed with his bowing technique and the sound he made.
His instrument was 3/4 size, about 50 years old and its shoulders were cut down to make playing in the higher registers easier.
I learned a lot from his approach to the instrument both musically and technically, and he influenced my own playing later to some extent when I had a chance to practice some of his ideas on playing.
I was amused when he occasionally fluffed a harmonic (which we all do occasionally), he would shout “kuss”, but his ability was dazzling and impressed me greatly.
I glanced at the clock; it was 5 p.m. so I reluctantly said goodbye, went back to the hotel to wash and dress for the concert, ate a light meal and then set forth for the Franz Liszt Akadamie.
* ‘fixer’, the person who engages the musicians.