The cello has been through some ‘rough times,’ but keeps getting better
- Player Between 2012 and 2015, German cellist Alban Gerhardt was the artist-in-residence at the Oregon Symphony Orchestra and in 2014 and 2015 is an artist-in-focus at Wigmore Hall. Having performed with more than 250 symphonies, Gerhardt has a particular affinity for little-heard compositions. His latest release on the Hyperion label finds him bringing cello pieces from Henri Vieuxtemps and Eugène Ysaÿe out into the daylight, Vieuxtemps: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Ysaÿe: Méditation and Sérénade.
- Bow by Russian bow maker Nikolaus Kittel (1805–68)
- Instrument A 1710 Matteo Goffriller cello. “I’m using Larsen Magnacore strings, [which are] much better than the previous Larsen strings. The cello sounds even more glorious than before.”
- Condition “It’s pretty beat-up, [with] lots of worm-damage, cracks everywhere, destroyed ribs, dark varnish, oversize, flat-chested, and looks far from impressive. Seen from up close, it’s almost a joke and a miracle that it sounds as good as it does. It’s worth about 25 percent of the value of one in perfect condition.”
Is this your primary cello?
It is my only cello.
How does it compare to your previous instrument?
It has a darker and bigger sound, a real “cello” sound—not trumpet, not violin, just cello.
What gift does this cello bring to your playing that cannot be found in any other instrument?
It has brought depth and darkness into my playing and interpretations, which fits my soul better than lighter-sounding instruments.
How does it inspire you as a performer?
The Goffriller makes me practice more since the measurements are very uncomfortable. I have to work on it in order to play well on it.
What can you tell about its history?
The guy who sold it to me claimed that it once belonged to Mussolini—who loved stringed instruments. He then gave it to his favorite poet, [Gabriele] D’Annunzio. At some point, Casals played on it in Paris and the cello imploded on him. Then to balance the bad karma (from Mussolini that is) a Jewish cellist in Hamburg played on it, and then it came into my possession through a private owner.
How did you come into possession of this instrument?
My previous cello—a Lorenzo Guadagnini—was stolen from my basement and I looked for a substitute for half a year. I played a handful of instruments, but none struck me as the “special one.” One day, a small violin dealer from the United Kingdom, who knew I had liked one particular Goffriller, but wasn’t able to afford it, gave me a ring to say that he thought he had found the right cello for me. A gallerist from Hamburg had offered that cello to a former client of his, a German heart surgeon who didn’t need a second cello. I met this doctor, tried the cello, and liked it enough to play the Schumann Concerto in Berlin on it. The cello was in a horrible state, but even then, it sounded quite convincing. I took the risk, bought it, and had it repaired. Since then it sounds a little better every year.
What drew you to this instrument?
It has a dark sound and has lived through some really rough times. It has character and is a survivor, and since I’m lacking all of these qualities, I needed them in my cello.
What is your cello’s personality? What are its strengths and limitations?
It’s warm and generous, but with a calm and introverted nature. The lower register is top class, though the higher register could be more brilliant.
What are your instrument’s likes and dislikes?
Like his owner, it doesn’t have any. It just likes music a lot, loves to perform, doesn’t mind travelling, and is never too happy with itself.
Have you thought about the people who have handled it before you?
No, the thought never crossed my mind. I seem to be so arrogant that I feel it was built for me and I am its first owner. I’m the same with the pieces I play on it—I pretend they were written for me and I am the first to ever play them. Arrogance? Ignorance? Or, just sheer stupidity? All of the above, maybe?
When and how did you truly learn who your instrument is, the soul of the cello?
I’m still searching for it.
Have you given it a name?
If given the ability, what would ‘Emma’ say to you if the two of you sat down for tea?
“It wouldn’t hurt if you practiced a bit more, young man”—because I am pretty young compared to Emma—“and, please, no more cargo travel!”