By David Templeton | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
For ten years, cellist Robert Cohen owned and played a Stradivari cello—the famous “Bonjour” Stradivari, made in 1692 and named for 19th-century French cellist Abel Bonjour. It seemed like a relationship that would last forever. Then he fell in love with another instrument, the 298-year-old “ex-Roser” Tecchler, and the rest is musical history. Three decades later, Cohen is as dazzled by the cello’s sound and feel as he was the day he first played it in a small room at Sotheby’s in London.
The son of violinist Raymond Cohen and pianist Anthya Rael, Robert began playing the cello at age 5, attending the Purcell School for Young Musicians at age 10. His concert-hall debut was in 1971, performing the Boccherini concerto in B flat at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Cohen graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1977, having made his recording debut with the Elgar Cello Concerto and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at age 19. He’s performed with numerous orchestras and ensembles, and for a time played with his parents as the Cohen Trio. His sister is a violinist, and the family was once featured in the 1993 BBC radio program “The Musical World of Raymond Cohen.”
Playing and living with a 300-year-old instrument and a brand-new cello side by side is an amazing experience.
Cohen’s father, who passed away in 2011, played an accidental but instrumental part (pun intentional) in introducing him to the cello that has now made music with him for 30 years. It’s a cello, he says, that is unlike any other he’s ever played, including the Stradivari. I ask Cohen to fill in some details of how he acquired the Tecchler, and what it’s been like playing it for the better part of his career.
Is your Tecchler cello your primary instrument?
Robert Cohen: Yes, the Tecchler is my primary instrument and has been since I purchased it in November 1991 at a Sotheby’s auction in London. Thirty years ago! I can hardly believe I’ve had it that long. I still feel I’m learning things about it. We have been on a long and wonderful journey, performing, developing, and discovering together. With our 30th anniversary together and the cello’s 300th birthday very soon, it’s a very poignant time to welcome a second cello into my life and my home, and extraordinary that this second cello is a completely new one, born this year! Playing and living with a 300-year-old instrument and a brand-new cello side by side is an amazing experience. The new cello is a very special and wonderful instrument made for me in Cremona, by a great luthier who has been caring for my Tecchler for some years. His name is Fernando Salvatore Lima. This is only the second time in my life I’ve had two cellos; the first time was when I had both the Tecchler and the “Bonjour” Stradivari. For one year I kept and played both instruments before it was it clear the Tecchler had completely won my heart!
How much do you know about your cello’s history?
David Tecchler made the cello in 1723 in Rome, where he had lived since the 1690s. Apart from the beauty and the immaculate condition of the instrument, the cello is immediately recognizable by the carving in place of the usual scroll—the sculptured head of a bearded man, in a highly decorated hat, earrings, and ruffled collar, finished in a gilded varnish. Experts believe this is a portrait of Tecchler’s patron in the Vatican, and that this cello would have been a very special commission. Most probably, the carving was made by a specialist wood carver—the detail is so specialized, intricate, and refined. The street where Tecchler lived was close to the Vatican and intersected with a street with many wood carvers, and it’s likely Tecchler would have supplied the neck/scroll block and a picture of his illustrious patron for a wood carver to create the sculpture. Once the sculpture was complete, Tecchler varnished and gilded the head himself.
Tell us about the name of the instrument.
The cello is named the “ex-Roser.” I do not know much about Dr. W. Roser except that he was clearly very well known in the 19th century. He owned the cello in Germany from 1899, and the provenance shows it was subsequently owned by a number of eminent cellists in the United States. Prior to me, it was owned by Edgard Feder, cellist, conductor, and music critic, residing in Manhattan.
How did you first come to play the “ex-Roser?” What initially drew you to it and, assuming this was the case, how did you know it was the right fit for you?
As a child and a teenager, I was often taken to Sotheby’s instrument auctions in London by my father, who was a violinist and loved to sift through the many violins laid out on the long display tables in search of instruments for his students. Many of them had only one or two strings, but nevertheless, he would enjoy playing them, bringing out the most marvelous sounds, resounding around the auction house, and bringing these often-neglected instruments to life! Then we would go upstairs for him to play the very special violins—Stradivari, Guarneri, etc. It was always fascinating to hear their sound and the comments he and the Sotheby’s team made. It is a memory I cherish about my father.
Years later, my father of course came with me to Sotheby’s to look at the “Bonjour” Stradivari cello that I was fortunate to purchase. In the following ten years, many times he would invite me to go with him to Sotheby’s for some fun, and sadly I was not often able to join him, as I was usually on tour.
However, one day in 1991, he called and asked if I’d seen there was a beautiful Tecchler, photographed on the front cover of the Sotheby’s catalog, and would I like to have a look at it, just for our interest? Luckily, I was free, and we went along together to have a little play. First, I played it in a small room, and I was blown away by the sound and the flexibility. So I arranged to play it downstairs in one of the huge galleries. I was truly amazed by the cello.
What first struck me was the exceptional clarity of the sound, the strength, and the openness. In all the years of trying many different cellos, it seemed to me this Tecchler had a unique voice, one which was both the typical Old Italian sound and also something new and brilliant. It gave me a huge sense of creative freedom. I was truly captivated. To top it off, there was an element of the sound that reminded me of Emanuel Feuermann, one of my greatest cello heroes, who I remembered played a Tecchler cello on recordings.
What I found with the Tecchler was a freedom beyond that of the Stradivari.
I have always had very strong and clear instincts about cellos. I know within minutes, sometimes moments, if an instrument appeals to me, if it can fulfil my expressive requirements, and if it will work for me as soloist. And so it was with this Tecchler.
What “gift” does the Tecchler bring to your playing that cannot be found in any other instrument?
What I found with the Tecchler was a freedom beyond that of the Stradivari. A greater variety of colors, power, and energies in the sound. I immediately felt I could find more to express in every phrase, and more sense of expressive power all together. It allowed me to musically fly towards new horizons. That freedom is hugely stimulating on a daily basis, when you consider I have been playing cello for 57 years!
What is your instrument’s personality and temperament like?
My cello is remarkably stable and unfussed. Is that a word? This is unlike every other cello I have had, which have all needed constant pampering! For instance, with the Stradivari I had to be aware constantly of keeping humidity levels adjusted in over-dry air-conditioned hotel rooms, cosseting it when being driven on bumpy roads, getting fairly frequent sound-post adjustments, etc. Whereas the Tecchler is content almost all the time. Even when it does need a little attention from the luthier, it is minor, and it doesn’t complain in the lead-up.
Does it remind you of anyone or anything?
I don’t think it reminds me of anyone or anything, but its personality does ask me to be strong and definite with it, so that it fulfils its open and positive character.
Does it perform better in certain situations?
You know, there is one situation when the Tecchler seems to thrive, and that’s whenever I play in Italy! I think the cello senses it is close to home and feels particularly happy and relaxed.
What is the Tecchler’s greatest strength?
It has so many! But I suppose I might say its open and beautiful character.
What are some of its limitations?
It doesn’t fold up into a small bag!
Corny one, but here goes. If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if you sat down for tea (or any beverage of your choice)?
It might gently suggest that it was feeling absolutely fresh and ready to be played, and why was I taking a tea break?
Bows: Étienne Pajeot; Jean Dominque Adam; James Tubbs
Case: Alan Stevenson, white (“Best for heat reflection!” says Cohen.)
Rosin: Gustave Bernadel (“Two swipes every two weeks!”)
Mute: Snakewood, by Matt Pierce, Piercello
Extras: Silk bag to put the cello in before it goes in its case, one soft yellow cotton cloth to wipe the cello, and one soft white cotton cloth to wipe the strings; plus an Apple iPad with forScore music software and a Pageflip “Butterfly” pedal