During his professional career, Nathaniel Robinson has played on a series of incredible instruments, including a wonderful old Grancino and a 2003 example by American maker Phillip Injeian. When he opens his case these days, a Felice Guadagnini (grandson of G.B.) violin is waiting there. It’s now a natural extension of his voice, but Robinson nearly missed out on this once-in-a-lifetime instrument.
What do you know about this instrument’s history?
According to the documents I have for the violin, it was made by Felice Guadagnini and later completed after his death in 1839 by his step-brother Gaetano Guadagnini (who was also a noted guitar maker) between 1840–50, in Turin, Italy. It’s quite a rare instrument and there are not a lot of violins by this particular maker because he lived only 28 years. When I had my violin repaired a few years ago and my luthier opened up the top of the instrument, we discovered a repair inscription by the noted Italian violin maker Leandro Bisiach on the inside of the violin’s top, near the bass bar: “1890, Milano.”
How did you come to play it? What first drew you to it and how did you know it was the right fit?
I heard through the grapevine about this instrument about six years ago from a few people in the violin business. It was for sale and sitting in a vault for some time at a well-known New York City violin dealer’s shop. The owner of the instrument at the time decided to take the violin off of the market and retrieved it from the dealer. When I first tried it at the residence of the prior owner’s friend, I was stunned right away by the beautiful sound and tremendous overtones the violin produced. Within a minute or two, I knew it was a perfect match for me. It was love at first pizz! With the help of some very generous friends and patrons, I was able to acquire this instrument shortly after trying it. I feel very lucky to have it as my partner!
Describe your instrument’s personality and temperament. Does it remind you of anyone or anything?
I would say, like any human being, it has its good days, and it has its days where it woke up on the wrong side of the bed. An older instrument like this will react more to weather changes than a modern instrument made in the last 50 years. With that said, over time, I’ve learned how much I can push this instrument under different circumstances.
What gift does your instrument bring to your playing that can’t be found in other instruments?
I would say one thing that makes this instrument unique is that even at the softest of dynamics it has a way of projecting sound while not losing any focus. I think many people often just test an instrument’s loud dynamics when first trying a violin to see how the fortissimi are. There are many incredibly powerful violins today, but very few of these instruments maintain that core of sound when the music calls for a whisper.
Does it perform better in certain situations?
I use it only for indoor concerts due to it needing a little more time to acclimate itself to the different levels of humidity. I try to keep the room constantly humidified where I store the violin during the winter months. If the weather gets too dry, I notice the instrument can get rather irritated at me.
What is its greatest strength?
I would say besides its wonderful range of dynamics and overtones, it has so many different colors and shades of sound, kind of like looking at a beautiful sunset.
What are some of its limitations?
I can’t think of any really when it comes to its playability. When the seasons change, the fluctuations of temperature and humidity can give it a little head cold. At first, this surprised me, but now I know approximately when to expect it each year.
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if you sat down for tea (or any beverage of your choice)?
I’m sure it would have a lot of great stories about its travels around the globe and how it has witnessed so many changes in history during its lifetime. It would probably also ask me why I practice so many scales.
Nathaniel Robinson’s Gear
Bows: Eugène Sartory, H.R. Pfretzschner
Case: Bam Hightech Slim