A couple of Sundays ago I attended a concert given by an amateur orchestra in Hertfordshire. Part of the reason was that a former pupil of mine was in the violin sections and I wanted to turn up to support him and to see how he was getting on with the orchestra’s challenging repertoire. The other reason was an attractive programme that included a favourite of mine, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor (Op. 104).
Before the concert began I scanned through the programme notes, paying particular attention to the biographical notes of the solo cellist. I then noticed an insert into the programme and read this with particular interest. It went:
CELLO PURCHASE APPEAL
*** is playing a rare cello made in Cremona circa 1700 by Giovanni Battista Rugeri, a contemporary of Antonio Stradivari. *** has a once in a lifetime chance to buy it by November 2014! He urgently needs investors or a benefactor(s) to help him achieve this goal. It would be purchased by a trust of investors/shareholders (just like having a share in a house). This is not a short term project so investors must be willing to invest for 10 – 15 years and enjoy the benefit of potential capital appreciation and ***’s development as a top cellist.
This ‘appeal’ posed a few questions as I could only assume that the instrument must be very valuable to justify it as a potential investment. Firstly, what must life be like, travelling on public transport with a six-figure sum perched on your back? I’d imagine you’d be watching over your shoulder, whether at home, in a café or backstage for a concert.
Secondly, would the instrument justify the price tag in terms of tone quality and the purpose it would be used for? In a solo setting or small chamber ensemble, perhaps. In an orchestra though, its tonal properties may not be fully realized. Often instruments of superior pedigree don’t always live up to their price tag so I was intrigued to hear it – on listening, I felt this one had a pleasing, mellow tone, but lacked definition in its lower register and had a more intimate character to it.
Thirdly, how could a player know how long they would need the cello for? They might decide that they want it for life, or hear another instrument that is obviously better, and desire that instrument instead. What if the investors all want to sell at different times? It all sounds a little bit complicated to me.
Also, perhaps the cellist has a ‘…once in a lifetime chance to buy’ this particular cello, but that doesn’t apply to other instruments. And this brings me onto the crux of my point: what is wrong with a modern instrument by a maker who is not yet famous, but who is making wonderful instruments with marvellous projection and tone quality? I’m sure that the best instruments do mellow, change, develop, even improve with age, but I’m equally sure that these same instruments were really good when they were newly made. In an interview in 1997 Gidon Kremer said ‘The sounds I produce are my own, not an instrument’s’, he insists.
‘I am in the lucky position of being able to choose from the best old Italian instruments, so why shouldn’t I? But I know I can play just as well on a good modern instrument even if it might prove more difficult than on a Strad or ‘Del Gesù’ without telling anybody, and the composer himself – who had heard his piece played on the older instrument 14 times that season – insisted that on that occasion it had sounded especially well!’
I own two new violins made by the luthier Martin McClean of Moneymore, Northern Ireland. Both instruments were very reasonably priced for handmade instruments and this definitely challenges the view that a modern instrument can’t have all the qualities we as string players look for: complexity, sweetness, evenness and effortless projection. Buying new is also a good way of stimulating trade for the makers who are alive and working today – and thereby supporting this vital contribution to music. Only ever playing antique instruments is a bit like always listening to music by master composers who were alive 200 years ago, but refusing to listen to music of our own time.