Five Players on the Magical Voices of Their Guadagnini Instruments

Compiled by Stephanie Powell

simone_porterViolinist Simone Porter

The Guad: 1745 G.B. Guadagnini violin, Parma. I have had the privilege to play it for about two and a half years.

Known History: I know very, very little—I only know its immediate history, who had it right before me, and the rest of its life is a mystery. It doesn’t belong to me but [the Mandell Collection of Southern California]generously loaned it to me.

Condition: It came to me in really great condition. It has the expected wear of hundreds of years, but it’s actually a very healthy instrument. The only repairs I’ve had done were, for the most part, minor. You know, touch ups that are really just from playing, like nicks and re-varnishing. There’s been only one major incident: There were pre-existing cracks in the pegbox that split at one point. It was one of those heart-stopping moments when I was tuning and I heard a crack and I thought, “Oh my God!” That was kind of terrifying. [Laughs.] But it turned out to be totally fine—I got the work done and right now it is spiffy!

Why do you feel a connection to this instrument?
This instrument really charmed me. I tried a lot of violins when I was going through this process and this one perked me up from the second I tried it. I read a lot of Harry Potter when I was younger and one of the main things in that book was that the wand chooses the wizard, and I’ve always kind of felt the same way about violins—that the violin chooses the player. And I felt this connection to this violin right away. I love the tone, which is on the soprano side, but it doesn’t lack any depth for that higher register. What I think I love the most is its versatility.

What originally attracted me to music was opera, so my favorite aspect of practicing and performing is seeking out different voices and colors, and with this instrument it’s like having the mini cast of an opera at my fingertips! Experimenting and exploring with it as a partner is really quite an adventure and a privilege.

What defines the character of the sound?
It’s hard to say. My favorite part is that it’s so movable. Of course there’s a soul, but the way that it develops is what attracted me initially and is what keeps the love going.

Have you recorded with it?
I’ve never done a CD with it, but I did do a number of recordings. There’s a video on YouTube of me playing Kreisler’s Caprice Viennois for the violin, and various things on the Florida State website.

What are your instrument’s strengths and limitations?
I don’t think I can blame the limitations of the violin. [Laughs.] It’s mostly things on my own that I need to negotiate and work out. I think with an instrument of this caliber—and it really is wonderful—anything that goes wrong, I think that I am the culprit. [Laughs.]

Describe its personality and temperament.
It’s playful—I mean maybe that’s just the relationship I’ve developed with it. Of course, my violin is there for the dark moments as well, but I remember [that’s] what really changed for me when I started playing this instrument—the fun, the exploration, and that feels like playing to me. It’s just really fun.


Violist Geraldine Walther of the Takacs Quartet

The Guad: 1776 G.B. Guadagnini viola, Turin; it’s 16 inches in length.

Known History: It was played in the well-known London-based Aeolian String Quartet by the famous violist Watson Forbes, from the 1940s to ’60s. It came from a private collection through Bein and Fushi to our quartet.

Condition:  It was in great condition when I got it, but it was very different from the instrument I was playing at the time, and it sat in the corner looking at me for a couple of months while I got up the courage to start to learn how to play it and to try to get the most from it. John Becker at Bein and Fushi did adjust the angle of the neck to aid in its projection and ease of playing. And I like the strings extremely low, which was an added challenge for him.

I used to run to the luthier to have the post adjusted all the time on the previous viola (that I was fortunate to borrow) before I started to travel with the quartet with this new instrument. Anyone who tours a bit knows that, with the climate and humidity changes one encounters on the road, it’s just better not to be messing with it all the time. It just will settle down and be more or less what you know it is, and then you just need to deal with it. Better to seek the change with yourself rather than the instrument, unless of course there’s really something that needs addressing maintenance-wise.


Why do you feel a connection to this instrument?
I think if you spend many hours learning pieces and performing many concerts, you are bound to form a bond with a particular instrument. I felt that way about the more modern violas that I have owned in my life, too.

What defines the character of the sound?
I don’t know scientifically, but this viola has a rich, darker, pungent quality that adds a lot to the color of the quartet, and it probably has a lot to do with its age and its size.

Have you recorded with it?
You can, of course, hear it best on the two discs of Brahms and Hindemith for MSR that we made with pianist David Korevaar, along with Andras Fejer, our cellist from the Takacs. But in all the quartet recordings for Hyperion since 2005, it has a distinctive voice. Also there is lots of viola in the Brahms viola quintets recording we did with violist Lawrence Power. That was a lot of fun! We have also recorded the Dvorak viola quintet with Lawrence for Hyperion, which should be coming out in a few months. Now that is a lot of viola to hear and a great second viola part featuring Lawrence.

What is it about the sound that resonates with you?
It has focus and clarity and a nice edge combined with a warmth of sound—sort of an alto kind of voice rather than a tenor. It carries quite well and can be heard in the hall. It doesn’t have that big, soft, spread sound that larger violas have, but that’s OK—I can’t play those big violas anyway!

What are your instrument’s strengths and WEAKNESSES?
It does and doesn’t like humidity—a little is good and a lot causes it to be harder in its response, which I like to be as sparkling as possible. Right now I am using Vision Solo strings that seem to be working great. I have tried many kinds and have ended up with these now. So much depends on me and how I am doing, though, it’s hard to remain objective about where the roots of any particular problems are on a certain day, you know? But the bottom line is this is a very beautiful instrument and I am indeed very lucky and very grateful to get to play it.


Violist Li-Kuo Chang, assistant principal viola of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The Guad: 1775 G.B. Guadagnini viola, Turin [Editor’s Note: Chang also used to play the 1768 “ex-Vieuxtemps” G.B. Guadagnini.]

Known History: I don’t know much about the history unfortunately. The viola belongs to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and was a donation from an old amateur violist. But it is from the Turin period.

Condition: The instrument has been taken care of before by Jim Warren’s shop. I’ve done a little bit—almost like cosmetic care: a new bridge, new soundpost done by a restorer here [in Chicago] at, as it happens to be called, the Guadagnini Violin Shop! [Laughs.] He’s an excellent workman and has been taking care of this viola since I started playing it two years ago.

Why do you feel a special connection to Guadagnini instruments?
Before this instrument, I played for many, many years on the Guadagnini viola that belonged to Henri Vieuxtemps, and that was a very special viola. It was so beautiful and in such pristine condition. Before that I had the opportunity to play on several Guadagnini violas, thanks to local dealers.

But the Vieuxtemps viola—I’ve never seen anything like it! If you put it next to the 1696 “Archinto” Strad viola, it’s almost like a copy with a very beautiful wood varnish unlike any other of [Guadagnini’s] other violas. It looks like a blown-up fiddle because his typical violas have a flat belly, and were not very long-patterned. This one is about 16 inches and it has a small middle part. It’s very beautiful to look at, so when it was certified, [the dealer] said this must [have been] a special order—it must be by someone [who wanted] it to look like a Strad viola.

What defines the character of its sound to you?
I think Guadagnini violas have incredibly focused sound, very creamy, and with such a small body [they have] an incredible carrying power. The high end is so beautiful at singing, and you’re not afraid of playing the A string in a higher position. The C string has enough power because it’s so focused. You don’t feel that this is a small viola. It’s not a booming sound—it’s very focused and centered, a very beautiful sound.

I remember when I was a student I heard Mr. Bernard Zaslav of the Vermeer Quartet perform a concert and I sat in the last row of the hall. His little Guadagnini viola [the 1781 “ex-Villa” viola] shouted out just incredibly among all these great instruments around him—that’s the first time in my life I heard a viola sound [like that] and I was just so impressed because when I saw the viola it was so small! I remember a colleague of mine said that the instrument’s projection is not just the sheer size of the sound or the decibel of how loud it is—it’s because the character is so distinguished it catches your ear.

Have you recorded with your current Guadagnini?
I have never recorded with it as a soloist, but I have recorded with the Chicago Symphony.

What is it about the sound that resonates with you?
It is a very expressive sound—I feel that there is a beauty [in it]. Sometimes [the viola] is very dark, but I think for both Guadagnini violas, I associate them with the beauty of their sound. The tone—there are no words to describe it—it’s a very seductive sound. It’s a little more of a rattle. It just comes out right away, and with some other violas, it can be frustrating and [players] can feel like the sonority of the instrument doesn’t really come out that much. With the [1775 Guadagnini] I just feel that anytime I want it to sing something, it just sings
for me.



Cellist Carter Brey, principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic

The Guad: 1754 “ex-Girardy” G.B. Guadagnini cello, Milan

Known History:  My cello was played by, and named after, the great Belgian virtuoso Jean Girardy (1877–1929) around the turn of the 20th century. Largely forgotten today, he was a celebrated performer in his day. In addition to [appearances as a soloist], he was a member of a famous piano trio with Josef Hofmann and Fritz Kreisler.

The instrument was sold in 1926, through George Hart in London, to Rodman Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department-store magnate. It became part of his eponymous collection of fine stringed instruments.
The collection was dissolved after his death and the cello was bought in 1930 by the Dutch-born cellist Michel Penha.

Penha was a far more interesting character than might be assumed from reading his brief biographical entry [online]. He was hired by Stokowski as principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the early 1920s, joining the faculty of the brand-new Curtis Institute at the same time. For some reason he migrated West, becoming principal cellist of the San Francisco Symphony and then turned up in Portland, Oregon, as a founding member of the Neah-Kah-Nie String Quartet. I have a series of publicity photos of the quartet taken during the summer of 1930 showing my Guadagnini in Penha’s hands.

After considerable concert activity as a chamber musician and recitalist in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California during the 1930s, Penha moved to Los Angeles where he joined the MGM studio orchestra. His credit can be found among the musicians who played the soundtracks for the most famous movie musicals of the era, such as High Society and Singin’ in the Rain.

Penha sold the cello in 1958 through Rembert Wurlitzer in New York City to a woman from Wethersfield, Connecticut. She apparently used it for chamber-music reading sessions with friends. It was from her estate that I bought the cello in 1984.

Condition: The cello was in excellent condition when I bought it and has required very little in the way of repairs during my ownership.

What is it about the sound that resonates with you?
It has a marked soprano quality and a smooth, plangent sound, particularly in its upper register. As a lover of the violin, I like this aspect. I would say that it pays the price for this in its lack of a deep bass.

What are your instrument’s strengths and limitations?
I find my Guadagnini, even after more than 30 years of ownership and concert touring, to be an exceptionally difficult instrument to play, requiring vigilance to overcome its resistance and tendency not to speak immediately. It is a particularly difficult instrument on which to play solo Bach because of its non-responsiveness in the middle register. In music with powerful long lyric lines, however, it excels.


Have you recorded with it?
My recording with Garrick Ohlsson of the complete chamber works of Chopin gives a good impression of its qualities.


Cellist Sol Gabetta

The Guad:  1759 G.B. Guadagnini cello, Parma.
The G.B. Guadagnini is a smaller cello and it had its problems in finding its real mettle. But this instrument really is a piece of gold. Because for me it has a pure and warm and sparkling sound. It’s perfect for chamber music, for recitals, or Baroque cello. In contrast, my other instrument a 1725 Gofriller has a more masculine sound.

As an interpreter, it’s a challenge to change between these two instruments (depending on which project I am going to develop) [because of] the different techniques I am using while playing these two instruments. Every time I’m playing one of the instruments, I have to listen in a new way to find out what natural strengths it has and where I have to help it to develop my capacities as well.

I’ve only played the Guadagnini for ten years and I thought it would be horrible to change the instrument, to get used to a completely new sound. In contrast I could always change my bow without any problems, or even play with two different ones in a  recital. It takes years to dominate an instrument. Otherwise you can’t really know it as it changes due to [humidity] or thermal change. If you travel a lot, all these changes are unavoidable and that’s why the longer you’ve worked with the instrument the better you’ll get to know it. Maybe after ten to 20 years, the instrument won’t be a challenge for the artist anymore.

Condition:  The Guadagnini had already been fully opened by the time I got it into my hands. But then, it sounded even better compared to my first impression.

Why do you feel a connection to this instrument?
My instrument is my teacher every day. It shows me the limits and lets me know that if I want to overcome them, I really have to work on it. Sometimes there are instruments with famous names, but they are actually not working so well or don’t have the sound. On the other side, there are instruments without a famous name, but a wonderful sound instead. Of course a combination of both aspects is ideal. The bond with the instrument is built up with the years the artist is working with it. It’s growing with the experiences that make the instrument sound the way I expect it to. Then for me, our connection would be

Have you recorded with your current Guadagnini?
The Guadagnini sounds best in Beethoven, Vivaldi, or Chopin.

What are its strengths and limitations?
The Guadagnini has one of the purest and most refined sounds I’ve ever heard. Sometimes, while playing with an orchestra, it has its difficulties to assert itself in the higher lay. But it never loses its quality and that is terrific!

Describe its personality and temperament.
G.B. Guadagnini: adventurous and inspired—individual and generous.