By Cristina Schreil | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
In 2014, Trio Oreade, a Zurich- and Hamburg-based ensemble, performed in a chamber-music competition in Basel, Switzerland. The real treat, however, was what came after. A representative from the Stradivari Foundation (Habisreutinger), which owns and lends out six Stradivari instruments, asked the trio if they wanted to play some. For the trio’s violist Ursula Sarnthein, it was a true surprise. “I never looked for a Stradivari and I could have never imagined that I would ever play on one,” she says. “And then suddenly this man came and asked if we wanted one.”
It’s unusual for an entire ensemble to play exclusively on Stradivari instruments. Their answer was obvious: “Yes, please.”
Eventually, what at first seemed too good to be true came to fruition. Sarnthein’s fellow trio players, violinist Yukiko Ishibashi and cellist Christine Hu, secured their instruments: the “King George” from 1710 and the “De Kermadec Bläss” from 1698, respectively.
Sarnthein was the last to choose. She plays the 1734 “Gibson” viola. (The foundation owns just one other viola, the “Mahler” from 1672, which is played by Antoine Tamestit.) Radiant from a light golden varnish, the Gibson is presumably the last viola Stradivari made, when he was into his 90s. Known players include David Greenlees, Hannes Bärtschi, Lech Antonio Uszynski, William Hymanson, William Primrose, and Yossi Gutmann. However, it’s named after English violinist George Alfred Gibson, who lived from 1849 to 1924; he occasionally played in the renowned Joachim Quartett.
Sarnthein spoke to us about aspects of this viola, why she was nervous before playing it, and how it suits her perfectly.
Please tell us about your instrument.
My instrument at the moment is a Stradivari viola. It’s from the year 1734, built by Stradivari when he was over 90 years old. Its name is Gibson—named after a violist that lived at the time of Brahms.
Let’s talk about the first time you played it. Was there pressure to love it because of the unique opportunity your trio was given?
The way I function as a player is, I pick up an instrument and I need to click with it rather quickly. I was really worried because my two other colleagues had already gotten their [Stradivari] instruments and I said, “I will only play this viola if it speaks to me—if I’m able to play on it.” And so, I was really nervous.
Then, what happened?
I picked it up and it just worked for me. I was able to play on it right from the start.
How would you describe the sound?
It’s very rich and has a large number of overtones. It’s very full, but also has a bright sound.
Does it remind you of anything or anyone?
The sound reminds me of a beautiful alto voice with a full range. To me, it is clearly a woman’s voice and not a man’s.
It’s an instrument that’s on the bright side rather than having more of a big, cello-like sound.
How is the size? How does it feel?
Normal. It’s a 41.15 size, which is medium. That’s the same size as my other instrument, and so it works perfectly for me. It’s not very big and also it’s comfortable to play.
It’s from Stradivari’s later period, correct?
He made it when he was very old, probably not all alone, maybe with the help of his sons. Violin makers look at it and they see that somebody older has made it—not a young person. It’s not quite so accurately worked as the instruments he made earlier.
What are its drawbacks and strengths?
Sometimes it changes a little bit depending on the weather. Sometimes the tone doesn’t come directly, and it’s a little bit difficult to produce the tone that I want. Other than that, I must really say it’s perfect. I used to be a violinist, with a professional life as a violinist, before I became a viola player, so I’m kind of a violin-type viola player. I like a really beautiful A string and I don’t need so much of a dark sound on the C string. It’s an instrument that’s on the bright side rather than having more of a big, cello-like sound. It’s a brilliant instrument, which suits me perfectly.
What made you switch to viola?
I wanted to go to Australia and get a job there. The funny thing was, the audition for viola was right in the middle of my holidays. So, I decided, “OK, I’m going to do a viola audition.” I won it and then I thought, “Why do I still play the violin?” So, I started studying viola. I changed my whole career because I liked it so much. That’s kind of a weird reason to start playing, but then I realized it’s what I wanted to do.
So, it started out as convenience, but then it grew into a real love?
If you were to sit down with your viola for tea, what do you hope it would say to you?
I think it probably would say to me, “Well, who are you now?” [Laughs.] “Another one, again! Why are you playing me now?” I imagine all those people who have played these instruments in the past 300 years. That’s also what I would like to know from the instrument. I’d want to talk about what it’s been like to have been played by so many other people.
For me, one thing that makes playing on this instrument so important is the whole history that’s behind it. It’s such a privilege to play it. It’s also a piece of art—a famous piece of art—that I’m playing. I feel really honored.