STEPHEN ORTON INTERVIEW ‘By the time I first met Robin in the spring of 2008 I had been unhappy with my own instrument for some years and had been borrowing a series of distinguished cellos including a Vuillaume. I had been very impressed by my colleague John Heley’s David Rubio cello which Robin had recently worked on, so at John’s suggestion I came to see Robin to try to get my own cello working better. I also decided to try some cellos and played about five instruments during my first visit to Robin’s workshop, including a Montagnana copy by Robin which was incredibly free in its response and offered so much that I was looking for in an instrument. I am principal cellist with the Academy of St Martin’s in the Fields and cellist with the Chilingirian Quartet, so I play mostly chamber music, either in the orchestra or in the chamber ensemble but I also guest lead in the Philharmonia and the LSO. As a principal cellist you need to make a big sound on the A string and you also need a very good bass; I found that Robin’s Montagnana copy had all of these qualities so I took it away to try it. After a few weeks, during which time Robin fitted a different bridge to free the response and I found my ideal combination of strings, I decided to buy it.
I have played Robin’s cello ever since and I love it. I have taken it on many tours to hot and dry climates and I feel very confident wherever I am and always enjoy playing it. Being a new instrument it is not fragile but I look after it just as carefully as if it was a delicate antique; it has a seat next to me on the plane and very rarely does it go out of my sight on tour unless it’s in a heavy flight case and being looked after by experienced tour crew.
I didn’t really expect to find a contemporary instrument that I could live with so happily and feel comfortable with in all situations. Some people might say you need several different instruments for different circumstances but I find this cello works and responds to my needs in all situations, whether in a big orchestral solo or playing really softly. I think the cello has developed during the time I’ve played it; there has been a lot to explore in the cello. What I really love is the freedom the cello gives me. My colleagues all like the instrument and no-one is saying, ‘Steve can you play louder here?’ I am really very happy with it.’
Stephen Orton has been principal cellist with the Academy of St Martins in the Fields since 1986 and is also a regular guest leader with the LSO and the Philharmonia Orchestra, London. Stephen was formerly principal cello with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta and assistant principal in the English Chamber Orchestra, performing as soloist with both ensembles and he was also a member of the Delme Quartet for 10 years. Stephen is the cellist of the renowned Chilingirian Quartet.
He plays a copy of a c.1740 Montagnana cello made by Robin Aitchison in 2001.
To see a video of Stephen Orton playing his Montagnana copy, visit the Video Gallery.
Testimonial by Joseph Davies
‘I was looking for a new cello and had tried many antique and modern instruments before playing Robin’s Guadagnini. Some of these I had taken away for extended loans. Having played on a modern cello for several years beforehand, I was aware of their many advantages (particularly their value for money, and their versatility) and was expecting to buy another. However, my main criterion for purchase was quality, and Robin’s cello seemed leagues ahead in this respect. It took me little time to decide on commissioning my own.
I was struck by the speed and subtlety of response that the Guadagnini offered. It also had a complex tone which I found a refreshing change to that of the Stradavari copy I was playing previously. The instrument was very comfortable to play, and I’ve realised since that this is partly due to some of Robin’s innovations in design. It was a cello with its own characteristic voice that allowed the player great control; in short, it was responsive without being passive.
The cello was in great shape before fitting the acoustical straps; they were not correctives, but the icing on the cake! That said, they can also make a remarkable difference to the sound, often exceeding expectations. The great appeal of them is that they offer players the chance to personalise, and to experiment freely with their instruments (because the changes they make can easily be reversed). The changes were quite specific from strap to strap: one gave greater brilliance to the upper register, one greater depth to the C-string and so on. They can affect the cello’s physical profile as well as its sound, reducing resistance or removing a wolf tone, for instance.
The finished cello (both Robin and I agreed) was even better than the model I tried earlier in the year. People tend to assume that modern cellos take a long time to ‘play in’ – and doubtless they improve over time – but I felt comfortable performing on the cello right from the outset.
The cello is wonderfully balanced: the tone quality is rich but well blended across its entire range; it is able to project above orchestras without being forced, but can also produce exceptionally quiet pianissimo. From this very stable core, it offers a wide range of timbres which it produces with instantaneous response.
After the first few months, I felt that the cello had fully ‘settled down’, and that I had adjusted to it. The qualities I had admired initially seem to have become more pronounced, without their character changing.
It is very versatile, and has been used for Bach, Berio, Beethoven and Carter. Robin has even said that it would happily support a baroque set-up.
Audiences comment on the quality of the instrument very frequently. Recently a group of Polish luthiers were particularly impressed, and professional cellists have been fulsome in their praise.’
Joe Davies is a cellist on the Artist Diploma programme at the Royal College of Music. As an orchestral player, Joe has worked with the London Sinfonietta (Academy 2015) and the Britten Sinfonia. He has been the principal cellist of the Symphony and Chamber Orchestras of both Cambridge University Music Society and the Royal College of Music. He has performed concertos with the Asyla Ensemble, the Crowthorne Symphony Orchestra, and the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra.
He plays a copy of a Guadagnini made by Robin Aitchison.
Recordings of Joe Davies playing his Guadagnini copy can be accessed at https://soundcloud.com/joseph-davies-15 The pieces recorded here are: J S Bach: Andante, from Sonata No. 2 in D Major for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord and Britten: Fuga, from Cello Suite No. 1, Op. 72. You can also watch a YouTube video of Joe Davies and Fiona Robertson playing the first movement of the Kodaly duo for violin and cello: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0Fg79QRwh4
Testimonial by Christopher Murray
I joined the Heath Quartet almost 17 years ago in my postgrad year. It’s amazing we have been together that long! When performing we constantly take it in turns to lead which makes for a very dynamic style. We also take on different roles depending on the circumstances: one of us might help calm the others’ nerves, or another might step in to give the performance more drive if they feel that’s needed.
I wasn’t particularly looking for another cello but in 2019 I saw that one of Robin’s Strad copies was for sale and decided to try it out of curiosity. It was such an immediate connection. Just playing the A string to tune it up I thought, OK this is going to be interesting. I was immediately struck by how freely it plays – you don’t have to put any effort into making it resonate. It’s a big sounding cello and the higher you go up, the more turbo charged it gets, which is great for being heard in solos. I took the cello out on approval for a few weeks, during which the quartet was performing at the Wigmore so I was able to play it in the hall and asked our violist Gary to make a quick recording to see how it came across in a big acoustic. This cello has so much cushion and bass that it helps the quartet to relax as they sense it supporting them. They don’t have to strain to hear it, it’s there surrounding everyone. The sound stays so sweet through all the registers and it’s never strained or harsh up the A string – I remember Gary saying it stays really beautiful in the higher registers and never loses that sweetness. It’s a noble, dignified, clear sound with depth behind it, sounding like a much older instrument than it is.
The cello was 5 years old when I bought it, so it had already done a lot of settling down. Since becoming its new owner, I haven’t noticed changes from day to day but every so often I notice a new quality on a particular note or a resonance – it has definitely become richer over time. The Strad model has a multi-dimensional, sophisticated quality to the sound, and there’s more of that in this cello now than when I bought it. It seems even more alive.
As a player the cello has helped me with certain aspects of my playing, especially achieving a fast articulation along with a resonance that really carries. It’s so effortless that you can almost forget about the instrument, leave the technical side behind and concentrate on what’s happening in the piece – which frees my mind to focus more than ever on the music and on my colleagues around me.
The cello has proved very stable and doesn’t seem to react to changes of temperature or humidity. It is very sensitive to the tiniest change in the setup and if you have a young instrument, I think it’s very important to keep it in best condition and to keep the set up well-adjusted because it is developing all the time. If it’s slightly out of synch I know it won’t get the chance to develop in the right way, so I try to see Robin every six months or so, to keep it healthy and playing at its best.
Christopher Murray, owner of a Marquis de Corberon Stradivarius model by Robin Aitchison
‘I had been searching for a cello within my price range for a long time. I tried many new and antique cellos, including one being sold by Robin Aitchison, but never found anything that I had wanted to keep. I had already owned a contemporary instrument and was happy to consider all options, especially given the rather poor selection of old instruments available for my budget. I tried all the instruments at the BVMA fairs over several years, and although finding some very interesting instruments I never felt so compelled by them that I could not return them after a trial. I had visited Robin to improve the setup of my previous instrument, and had been very impressed with his attention to detail and knowledge of how my requirements translated into physical changes in particularly sound-post and string choice. When I tried Robin’s Strad copy I really enjoyed the nature of its sound and the fact that I could demand so much from it in terms of volume and colour. I also liked the evenness across the strings, and the fact that it did not sound “new”. The string length is comfortable – I have quite big hands but feel that nothing is too much of a stretch. There are lots of subtle colours, and more appear all the time, even now the instrument is nearly four years old. The cello goes through phases of change followed by periods of stability, but the change is always for the better. I find that the cello’s development is a learning experience for me, as I can always explore new possibilities. I have several colleagues who offer very high praise of this instrument, as well as how it has allowed my playing to flourish!’
Alex Barnes, owner of a Stradivarius model cello by Robin Aitchison
‘Thank you for the BEAUTIFUL cello which I played in concert this evening. Performing Vaughan-Williams’ Fifth Symphony under the baton of Christopher Warren-Green as well as two concerti with Evelyn Glennie transported me across the Atlantic and compelled me to write this long-overdue note to you. I bought your cello in Minneapolis last summer. I was not looking to buy a cello for myself – I was shopping for instruments for my students. The shop owner handed me your cello and wanted to know what I thought of it. I could not put your cello down. I could not leave the shop without it. I could not bring the cello back to the shop when it was time for me to fly home to North Carolina. So I brought it home with me. Everyone here loves it too. I have had such FUN playing your cello. I am in my 25th year in the Charlotte Symphony in North Carolina, USA. I have played a lovely French instrument attributed to Xavier Couturieux since 1981 and I was very happy with it – until I played yours! I now use your cello in the orchestra and play it regularly in a piano trio. It is so refreshing to play an instrument that WILLINGLY gives me what I ask. It is responsive and quick – I liken it to driving a Ferrari, rather than the Mercedes Sedan I have been playing! The range of colours available to me now has changed my approach and refreshed my enthusiasm for playing. I love the shorter string length. Everything is easy now! My Victor Fétique bow suits the instrument perfectly. Thank you for this great gift!’
Janis Nilsen, owner of a Guadagnini copy by Robin Aitchison with original dimensions
‘I was very impressed with your Guadagnini copy which I preferred to others I have seen (including an original Guadagnini). I very much liked its acoustic potential as well as the woodwork and varnish. Your Guadagnini copy has such richness in detail and your woodwork is of an outstanding quality and comes with an extraordinary lightness. Besides the fact that your cello is a very close copy, you have also completely captured Guadagnini’s freedom of design which I have never seen with other Guadagnini copies. Also, your varnish is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen on new instruments: it is wonderfully transparent and balanced in colour and texture. It is obvious how careful and skilled your technique of applying is! Personally, I think it is clever of you to take so much care and to persevere with your Guadagnini model and not changing your model twice a year like other some other violin makers! I’m very happy that you are going to make a cello for me and I will proudly present it in my musical environment!’
Response of a soloist on first trying a Guadagnini copy. He subsequently commissioned a copy.
‘I took out my Robin Aitchison Strad model cello on approval in early March 2011. The cello felt so right in my hands that I was soon in no doubt that I had to buy it. As a veteran cellist with a career of 20 years as an orchestral player and then longer than that as Head of Music in two London schools behind me, my new cello has given my playing a new lease of life. In my palmy days as a player, when I was, principal cello with English National Opera, for over 10 years, I never managed to get the cello I really needed: if only I had had this cello then!’ I gave the cello its public debut on Friday 17 June 2011 with the Devas Piano Trio at Bury St Edmunds Cathedral. I have played the Mendelssohn D minor trio many times but it has never felt as good as this with its easy response and rich, vibrant tone.’ John Catlow
‘Thank you for the happiness you bring through your enthusiastic work with cellos.’
Owner of Robin Aitchison’s first Guadagnini copy
‘I just had the chance to see and to play on a Robin Aitchison cello based on the Guadagnini model. I was so pleased to have the chance to have a close look to this cello which I found fantastic from all points of view.’ Extract from an email from a professional Italian cellist
‘I have your cello in hand and just want to say that it is exceptional and stunning. Thank you for it, I will be thrilled to offer it!’
Prominent USA dealer
‘Robin’s cello performed and responded beautifully on its “maiden voyage” three weeks ago. I was very pleased. it was easy to play, which is the quality I particularly wished for in this cello, and drew very positive comments from the audience.’
Owner of an enlarged Guadagnini copy by Robin Aitchison