Ralph Kirshbaum’s 1729 Montagnana Cello Delivers a Breadth of Sound and a Deep History

From the December 2016 issue of Strings

Ralph Kirshbaum’s long career began when he first debuted with the Dallas Symphony as a soloist at 13 years old. Kirshbaum quickly rose to prominence in musical circles, went on to graduate with high honors from Yale, and won prizes in the First International Cassadó Competition in Florence, Italy, in 1969, and the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1970. Debuting as a soloist at Wigmore Hall just two years later and subsequently in New York in 1976, Kirshbaum has worked with the world’s greatest orchestras and currently, when not recording or on tour, is the chair of the string department at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, where he holds the Gregor Piatigorsky Chair in Violoncello.

I caught up with Kirshbaum at his home in Los Angeles, while he was taking a brief break from his international travels and touring, to talk about his rare Montagnana cello. —Heather K. Scott

Kirshbaum with his 1729 Montagnana cello. STEVIE COHN PHOTO

Tell us about your cello and its condition.
I play a 1729 Montagnana cello that once belonged to the 19th-century virtuoso Alfredo Piatti. The instrument is nearly perfect. No major cracks or patches, which is unusual for its age. There have been some very minor rib stress fractures over the years, but next to nothing else.

Is this your primary instrument?
Yes, for over 43 years. From the moment I first started playing the Montagnana, this cello revealed its incredible breadth of sound and range of color.

What gift does your instrument bring to your playing that cannot be found in any other instrument?
It has given my playing more warmth and core—particularly in the bass. And given the overtones, the warmth and core also carry on into the treble. It possesses a stunning range of beautifully warm sound. I’ve spent the past 40 years getting to know it.

How did you come into possession of this instrument, and what do you know about its history?
The instrument really found me. It was in the hands of Jacques Francais in New York City, and he knew I was looking for an instrument of this caliber—an instrument with great sound and color. I had moved to Europe in 1971, and he contacted me to let me know that he had a Montagnana (not my current cello, a different one) to try. After trying it out, I told him that I appreciated the opportunity, but it wasn’t for me. Then less than a year later, he contacted me about this Montagnana cello and said, “I think you’ll like this one.” I stopped by in December 1972 to try the instrument for a couple days. I was leaving for a tour to Texas, and he let me take it on tour. I fell completely in love with it.

The instrument belonged to Piatti in the 19th century, and was part of the Curtis Institute collection in the 20th century. The institute sold it to Hungarian cellist Janos Scholz in New York, and then he sold it. It was purchased by an amateur who played it for two years. However, it was reportedly too difficult for him to handle—it is a big instrument and requires a lot of sensitive control. So, he decided to sell in the late 1960s. That’s how I got it.
Another interesting story about this particular cello: Back in the 1870s, Alfred Hill (founder of W.E. Hill & Sons in London) received a telex message from Rome telling him that a family, who had just lost their patriarch, had a Montagnana for sale. So, Hill made the long trip via train to go see the instrument. When he visited the family’s apartment in Rome, he knew instantly the cello wasn’t a Montagnana, but the scroll was.


Hill persuaded the family to let him take the scroll with him back to London, assuring them he’d send them a magnificent scroll to match their instrument. Years later, in 1907, someone walked into Hill’s shop in London with a Montagnana cello, and Hill knew immediately that this was the cello that the scroll belonged to, at which point he returned it to its rightful place. (I think the story is particularly interesting, because I’m married to “Marie” Antoinette.)

What drew you to this instrument?
It is like when you sit down to play with a great musician—you sense immediately if this musical relationship is going to be something that will be productive and positive. With a great instrument, from the moment you put the bow on the instrument, you feel this connection, too. From the first time I tried this cello in December 1972 to the present time, adjustments made primarily by René A. Morel through the years developed the full potential of this Montagnana instrument significantly.

Have you thought about the people who have handled it before you? And, do they resonate in your instrument?
No resonance, really. It isn’t my nature to feel like that. Here it is and here I am—and what an incredible instrument this is, and how fortunate I am to play it. Yes, I’m interested in the lineage, of course, but it doesn’t influence my playing or our relationship.

What is your instrument’s personality and temperament like?
It is a darker sounding instrument. Initially the A string was penetrating but with a hard edge. The cello was restored in 1979, and the changes René made when putting in a new bass bar, post, and bridge affected the entire range of the cello, particularly the A string. It was like a flower opening. When I played my debut in London I had a Strad. It was an incredible instrument, but it didn’t have the bass that the Montagnana has. But, every instrument has idiosyncrasies. It is an intimate relationship that you develop, and you really get to know the instrument and how best to respond to it.

If you were to liken your instrument to a personality, does anyone specific come to mind?
No. But, when my father first heard this instrument, it was just after he’d first come to London to see me. I had already been living in London when he visited in 1972. We went to go see the first showing of King Tutankhamun’s artifacts at the British Museum, and when he later heard me play the Montagnana, he said that I should call it King Tut because of the regal grandeur that the instrument possessed (both physically and sonically).

Does your instrument perform better in certain settings over others?
No. Because of the magic of its sound and its capabilities, it works well with chamber, concerto, and sonata works—and in all manner of halls, from the ultra-dry Stirling, Scotland, (where I played many years ago in a very dry hall) to the most resonant concert venues. It has a special quality of sound—it can be focused when you need to, and you can also draw the most mellifluous sound.


What are your instrument’s strengths and limitations?
This instrument doesn’t really have any weaknesses. And, there’s no wolf note, which is highly unusual for instruments of this vintage (nothing around E or F).

If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if the two of you sat down for tea?
We would probably talk about Italy—about Italian food and the generosity of the Italian people. I remember someone telling me 50 years ago, “Your instrument will sound better in Italy.” And in my personal experience, I think that’s the case. I once visited the church where Montagnana’s birth papers are lodged in Lendinara, Italy—the birthplace of Montagnana. And in London, the instrument had sounded a little uneven. But in Italy, it felt much better. 


STRINGS: I have a very eclectic set of strings. I use Pirastro Permanent on the C string. I’ve come to use it the last seven years; I used to use an American Gold Label string a long time ago, and I loved it—it had such a life to it—but they stopped making them. On the G string, I use a Thomastik-Infeld Dominant, at René [Morcel’s] suggestion. And on the top two strings, I have a Prim Medium on the D and an Orchestral on the A.


BOW: A Lamy bow that I’ve used exclusively for 50 years

CASE: An Accord

ROSIN: A&B (I like grip and response)

REPAIRS: I moved to LA a few years ago, and when I was in New York, I used René. I adored him. He was such a great human being, with such skill. He could take an instrument and make enormous improvements. And he knew the cello long before I got it. Until his untimely passing, I would make special trips to New York just to see him. I even once met him in Luxembourg when he was changing planes, for an adjustment.

Now, in Los Angeles, I’ve been seeing Eric Benning, who has been very helpful and kind to not just me, but to my students, too. He can make really fine adjustments. But these days, thankfully, I rarely need to have adjustments made.