By Cristina Schreil
The first time violinist Yukiko Ishibashi encountered the Stradivari she now plays, it was an emotional lightning-bolt moment. There were tears. “At the first moment when I played it I felt, for the first time in my life, that an instrument’s sound touched my soul,” she recalls. “It was like a god speaking . . . I couldn’t avoid crying. I had never before produced such a deep, warm, and round sound.”
Many players dream for the chance to encounter a Strad, especially one that turns out to be his or her musical soul mate. Ishibashi not only encountered a Strad, she was given the opportunity to play it for an extended period. Yet, what’s even rarer about Ishibashi’s experience is that she was not alone—two of her colleagues, fellow players in the ensemble Trio Oreade, were sharing in her experience. As Ishibashi secured her Strad, the 1710 “King George,” trio cellist Christine Hu met her Stradivari cello from 1698, nicknamed “De Kermadec Bläss.” The cello sports a darker, orange-brown varnish. And soon after, violist Ursula Sarnthein received her Stradivari viola: the 1734
“Gibson.” Their reactions were just as powerful. “I was overwhelmed. The instrument’s whole body was ringing somehow,” says Hu of the first time she played. “Everything was sound.” Sarnthein, who felt pressure to gel with the instrument especially after her colleagues loved theirs, was pleasantly surprised to find that she clicked with the viola.
The circumstance that all three trio members received Strads was not a product of chance. In 2014 the Zurich- and Hamburg-based trio performed at the August Pickhardt Competition for chamber music in Basel, while working with Rainer Schmidt from the Hagen Quartet. Afterward, a representative from the Stradivari Foundation (Habisreutinger), based in Switzerland and sometimes favoring to loan instruments to players with a Swiss connection, approached them. He offered them a chance to play on three instruments from their six-instrument collection. The answer was simple. “We said, ‘Yes, of course,’” Sarnthein recalls. About a year and a half later, when instruments were available, they had their chance.
It’s certainly not unheard of for several ensemble players to tote Strads. For example, all players in Trio Zimmermann, comprising violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, violist Antoine Tamestit, and cellist Christian Poltéra, happened to all perform on Stradivaris at one point. However, it is notable for an entire trio to regularly perform together, all on instruments by Stradivari, each hailing from one of three distinct periods in the maker’s long life.
Made first, in 1698, the “De Kermadec Bläss” cello shares a name with the Breton family De Kermade, who owned it for a century. The word Bläss, a breed of Eastern Swiss mountain dog known for its loyalty, was added when the instrument’s last owner, Rolf Habisreutinger, compared the cello to this kind of companion. The 1710 “King George” violin hails from Stradivari’s Golden Period and also has a tight bond woven into its history. It’s named for one of its famous owners, the English King George III, who reigned from 1760 to 1820.
Stradivari crafted the 1734 “Gibson” viola in the twilight of his life, at age 90. According to Sarnthein, it has a brighter sound. Experts have told her that, at a closer glance, it does look like something crafted by an older maker.
When Trio Oreade received their instruments, they knew they had to do more. “It was clear,” Sarnthein says. “We wanted to make a recording right away.” They selected Mozart’s Divertimento, K. 563, a crown jewel of chamber-music repertoire. “There’s nothing better than this piece for string trio,” Sarnthein says, adding it was a clear choice for their first record, out this June, with the Strads. They launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the record. (A top reward for donating included a private concert—a “chance to listen to three Stradivaris in your living room!”)
Their instruments are far from the only highlight. Trio Oreade hoped to delve deep into the Divertimento—Sarnthein muses that because it is a beloved, oft-programmed work, many ensembles that perform it might not play together regularly, and, as a result, might not delve as deep into the piece as they could. “Because there are so few string trios, mostly [the Divertimento] is played after three or four rehearsals. [Ensembles] play a concert and the group parts again.”
For the album, Trio Oreade wanted to inspect the work through an intensive process and historically informed lens. They performed the work in concert several times before heading into the studio, making a point to buff their interpretation in a unique way. “That a string trio gets together and puts a lot of work into it and rehearses and plays it in concert several times, so we really get to the core of the piece: That is what’s special about the recording,” Sarnthein says.
To do this, they strived to be historically informed, mining for treasures in the music that they hadn’t looked for before. “One of the few things that fascinated us was how much the harmony influences the phrasing, which is something that you kind of brush over a bit of what you play in the Romantic style,” says Sarnthein. “By interpreting to get really deep into the harmonies and
the changes of the harmonies, the tempo changes. There are a lot of transitions [where] you can’t put a metronome on and listen to the first movement. [The tempo] is always moving with the phrases and the harmony.” The trio also paid close attention to the Menuetto movement, exploring how Mozart broke rules, at times throwing in little jokes, Hu says.
Ishibashi adds that the trio recorded nearly all of their concert programs to keep revising and perfecting their interpretation. “This helped us a lot to communicate about our musical ideas after live concerts or after rehearsals. When we have a lot of live experience with a program, this process hopefully leads to a very high level of playing,” she says. “Then we go to the studio.” The recording is hardly the endgame, however. “The recording process is just one step on our way to a ripe interpretation,” Ishibashi reiterates.
Despite what the high-profile instruments have added to the trio’s tonal and interpretive commitment, they have also shown themselves to be a bit of a double-edged sword. “When we didn’t have the instruments, people would come to us after the concerts and would say, ‘You played wonderfully, it was a great concert.’ Now they come and say, ‘Oh my god, your instruments sounded so wonderful,’” says Hu. “It’s almost a bit disappointing, I must say, because there are people who are more interested in our instruments than how we play. That people come to our concerts because of our instruments is fine. But, they should come also when we one day may not have the instruments anymore.”
Still, it seems it’s a gamble they’ll take. “We had a chance to do that recording because we have the Strads,” says Sarnthein. “We are very grateful for that.”