Stradivari Montagnana Guadagnini

The three cello models made by Robin Aitchison are based on individual instruments by Antonio Stradivari, Domenico Montagnana and Giovanni Battista Guadagnini.  These models are the 1726 ‘Marquis de Corberon’ Stradivari, the c.1735 ‘Pergamenschikow’ Montagnana and a c.1755 Milan period Guadagnini.  All three cellos were made during a uniquely fruitful period in classical Italian cello making.  By the beginning of the 18th century the cello had emerged as a solo instrument from its original bass role and had shrunk in length with the introduction of the metal wound C string.  Eighteenth century cellists such as Salvatore Lanzetti and Carlo Ferrari required ever greater facility in the playing of new virtuoso repertoire such as the sonatas and concerti of Vivaldi and Bach.  All the demands and conditions were thus in place for the classical makers to produce instruments which are still the first choice for the most accomplished cellists of our time.

Aitchison Strad model back

Aitchison Strad model 2014

Stradivari ‘Marquis de Corberon’ cello 1726  

This famous cello was given to the Royal Academy of Music in 1960, initially for the lifetime use of the cellist Zara Nelsova who played it for 42 years.  Nelsova is recognised as one of the great cellists of the 20th Century, particularly famed amongst aficionados for her extraordinary tone production and the legacy of her recordings, to the extent that she and the ‘Marquis’ have entered cello folklore.  Keith Harvey memorably described her as a ‘very gutsy player who always sounded like about six men’.  Her physical power combined with the rich tonal qualities of the cello produced an unforgettable ‘warm, blooming tone’ (Strad Magazine Feb 2003) which can be heard in her many recordings made after 1960.  The cello is currently in the distinguished hands of Steven Isserlis who also plays a 1740 Montagnana cello.

The ‘Marquis de Corberon’ is one of the last cellos to have been made on Stradivari’s Forma B mould.  It was this mould that defined the outline shape of many of Stradivari’s most famous cellos from 1709 onwards.  The creation of the Forma B mould is seen as one of Stradivari’s great achievements and its use coincided with the ‘golden’ period of Stradivari workshop production.  Many of these cellos are works of extraordinary grandeur with a quality of wood, craftsmanship and varnish never before lavished on a cello.  In contrast, the ‘Marquis de Corberon’ cello of 1726 is from the later period of Stradivari workshop production and was made during very lean economic times in Cremona.  Everything from the use of locally grown willow wood for the back and ribs to the dark red brown varnish speak of a more earthy creation, but one which many believe to be the best sounding Stradivari cello of them all.

Stradivari cellos and contemporary copies of them are often criticised for lack of depth in the lower register.  It is in this area that the ‘Marquis de Corberon’ is so exceptional.  It has all the tonal elegance and golden colouring of the iconic Stradivari cello sound but also great depth and richness in the C string.  A significant factor behind this aspect of the cello is its one-piece willow back.  Willow can sound a little softer under the ear than maple, but produces an extra depth of colour and darkness of tone without sacrificing core sound and therefore projects extremely well in a concert hall.

Another significant advantage of this model is that the arching of the front is particularly low and subtly arched; many other Forma B cellos have higher, fuller front arching and thinner graduations.  It is thought that the best sounding  Stradivari cellos are  those with low front arching, as this allows the plate to vibrate more freely, providing greater vibrating mass for the player to connect with and creating the potential to move air in a very powerful way.

It is generally believed that Forma B Stradivari cellos have to be coaxed carefully – like nervy thoroughbreds – in order to get them to speak and perform at their best.  Fortunately, the ‘Marquis de Corberon’ is not an extreme example of this (probably a factor of its thicker graduations and softer arching) so, by Stradivarian standards, you can play into the instrument more freely and it responds with more ease and warmth.  The long body of the Forma B and Stradivari’s placing of the F holes result in a full string length, so this model is best suited to players who are comfortable with larger intervals in the left hand.

Robin’s copies of the ‘Marquis de Corberon’ are very generous under the ear, giving a lovely feeling of breadth, support and sonority to the player, along with a distinctively Stradivarian classical elegance of tone.  These instruments are also very responsive to the choice of bridge design and can equally be set up to maximise the cello’s warmth and resonance or to steer the instrument towards power and projection.

Montagnana ‘Pergamenschikow’ cello c.1735

Aitchison Montagnana model 2013

Aitchison Montagnana model 2013

This cello was played for 20 years by the much loved Russian soloist, teacher and chamber musician Boris Pergamenschikow.  He won the gold medal in the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in 1974 and emigrated to the West in 1977.  He was revered as a musician of the highest quality and was once described as “a soloist in the 18th century mould.”  The cello is now owned by the Razumovsky Trust and is on long-term loan to the internationally acclaimed Belgian soloist David Cohen.

Montagnana was a pupil of Gofriller in Venice and inherited a more eclectic tradition of violin making than Stradivari, who was a direct descendent of the Cremonese School.  The Venetian school may have looked to Cremona for inspiration but ultimately developed its own style, nowhere more strongly than in cello making.  Venetian instrument making must be seen in the context of Venice as a secular republic and an important international trading hub.  The role of music was predominantly commercial (rather than ecclesiastical) in Venice, whose vibrant arts scene and annual carnival drew in wealthy pleasure-seeking visitors from afar.  Wood and varnish of exceptional quality were readily available for Venetian cello makers to turn into lush, extravagant instruments for an opulent and luxury-obsessed clientele.

Cello making formed a major part of Montagnana’s output, partly in response to the popularity of the cello in Venice but probably also because the size and scale of the cello suited Montagnana’s style of workmanship.  His cello model, at 740mm, is not as long as Stradivari’s but was very broad, causing many of his instruments (including the ‘Pergamenschikow’) to be reduced in width in later years.  On the ‘Pergamenschikow’ cello, wood was removed only along the centre joints of the front and back plates which has resulted in an instrument of exceptional playing qualities for modern use whilst retaining all the details of Montagnana’s voluptuous carving around the edges of the cello.

Unlike Stradivari, Montagnana was not a fastidious worker with a refined and highly premeditated style, but was a vigorous and spontaneous craftsman, working his luxurious materials with a casual hand and achieving dramatic results in a pragmatic way.  The arching and edgework of this cello are very muscular and full of big gestures and powerful shapes which express the characteristic energy and strength of Montagnana’s craftsmanship.  There is no question that the character of an instrument’s craftsmanship is reflected in its sound; the dark, complex and concentrated tonal powers of this instrument are the musical manifestation of Montagnana’s distinctive sense of style. 

Pergamenschikow was described as ‘extracting from his 18th-century Montagnana cello a sound of rugged beauty that thrilled audience and critics alike’.  (Daily Telegraph obituary May 2004)  This cello certainly rewards strong playing; the more you push the instrument, the more complex and interesting it sounds.  Under the bow, the response of the cello is surprisingly straightforward and biddable.  Jacqueline du Pré famously described Martin Lovett’s Montagnana cello as ‘uncomplicated’ to play.  This was meant as a compliment and it is likely that she would have had the same positive response to the ‘Pergamenschikow’ cello.

The completion of Robin’s most recent copy of the ‘Pergamenschikow’ coincided with a visit from David Cohen with the original instrument.  Listening to both cellos played alongside each other it was clear that the strength and tonal qualities of the original were well captured in Robin’s copy.

Guadagnini cello c.1755

Aitchison Guadagnini model 2013

Aitchison Guadagnini model 2013

Guadagnini had a long and varied career, working in four major Italian cities.  In 1749 he followed his friend, the influential cellist Carlo Ferrari, to Milan where he developed the distinctive cello model which he was to use for the rest of his working life.  His early cellos were based on a classical model by Andrea Guarneri but in Milan Guadagnini evolved a shorter, full-waisted model with widely spaced f-holes and long C bouts which are easy to clear with the bow. 

Guadagnini’s execution of his model was not particularly geometric or symmetrical, and the model seems to have evolved in an organic and functional way.  Guadagnini’s cellos tend to be wider in the front than in the back and it appears that Guadagnini removed his mould from the ribs and glued them to the finished back before defining the shape of the front.  When released from the mould the ribs splay out a little so that when Guadagnini drew round them to create the outline for the front of the instrument, the front was wider than the back.  This design is comfortable for the cellist, since the narrow back sits easily between the legs.  The design also has tonal advantages, since the wide front increases the tonal potential of the instrument.

Robin first copied this Milan period model in 2002 when its owner commissioned him to make a close copy of her cello to use on tour.  This Guadagnini model is very sensitive, responsive and quick to speak, with a rich, complex tone and particularly beautiful colours on the A string.  The copy was such a success and sounded so similar to the original that Robin has made more than 15 further copies in two sizes, thanks to the generosity of the owner who gives Robin extensive access to her instrument.  As well as an exact copy of the original with a string length of 667mm (26¼ inches) and a back length of 711mm (28 inches) Robin also makes a 2% enlargement of this model which can be made with a string length from 680cm to 690cm, depending on a player’s preference.  This allows a lot of flexibility for cellists wishing to enjoy the freedom of shorter stop lengths and less extended intervals in the left hand.

Players using Guadagnini cellos include Natalie Clein (1777 ‘Simpson’), Maxine Neuman (1772), David Geringas (1761) Pieter Wispelwey (1760) and James Richter (1770).  For more about Guadagnini. see

Vive la différence!  Robin enjoys the discipline of copying three such contrasting classical models and delights in their huge stylistic and functional differences which have served the varied needs and tastes of cellists for hundreds of years.

Robin’s work is partly commissioned and partly freely scheduled in order to achieve continuity for the development of ideas within each model.

For more information about each model, see:

Stradivari model
Montagnana model
Guadagnini model

To see and hear some of Robin’s instruments played, see Video Gallery

This article was first published in News for Cellists Autumn 2013

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