This famous Montagnana 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 currently used by the internationally acclaimed Belgian soloist David Cohen.
Domenico Montagnana was a pupil of Matteo Gofriller in Venice and inherited a more eclectic tradition of violin making than Stradivari, who was a direct descendant 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.
Montagnana scrolls in progress
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.
Montagnana cello and Robin’s copy
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.
The following audio clips are kindly provided by NMC Recordings of Matthew Sharp playing the Errollyn Wallen Cello Concerto on a 2013 copy of the ex-Pergamenschikow cello by Robin Aitchison.
Errollyn Wallen Cello Concerto performed by Matthew Sharp; excerpt from the opening cadenza.
The dimensions of this Montagnana model are as follows
(measured over the arch):
String length: 695mm
Length of front (plate only): 742mm
Width of upper bout: 337mm
Width of middle bout: 243mm
Width of lower bout: 440mm
Height of front arch (including edge thickness of the plate): 29mm
Length of back (plate only): 737mm
Width of upper bout: 336mm
Width of middle bout: 241mm
Width of lower bout: 438mm
Height of back arch (including edge thickness of the plate): 31mm
Depth of ribs: 113mm at top block, 120mm at bottom block