Top soloists to play priceless instruments at Usher Hall

Sol Gabetta
Sol Gabetta
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Produced in association with The Usher Hall

We know from television favourites such as Cash In The Attic and the Antiques Roadshow that there’s value in provenance. It’s often the story behind an object that can magically transform it into a priceless artefact. I’m reminded of this as I peruse the programme for the Usher Hall’s 2017-18 Sunday Classics series, its recently unveiled season of ten symphonic concerts running from October to May 2018, which alongside a string of top notch international orchestras and conductors features some of the world’s leading soloists and the irreplaceable instruments they play. Okay, that’s not so much the case with the appetising clutch of pianists on offer. They include Peter Donohoe, Stephen Hough, Valentina Lisitsa and Pavel Kolesnikov, who feature respectively with the St Petersburg Symphony, Basel Chamber, Russian State and Czech National symphony orchestras in piano concertos by Rachmaninov, Mendelssohn and Beethoven, and whose instrument on the day will be the resident Usher Hall Steinway.

But the season also includes a dizzying array of string virtuosos, from violin supremos Maxim Vengerov, Joshua Bell, Nikolaj Znaider and Arabella Steinbacher, to multi-award-winning Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta; and it is they who will bring with them historical instruments which carry their own unique stories and multi-million-pound price tags to match.

Take Bell’s 304-year-old Stradivarius, for example. It’s called the “Huberman”, having belonged at one time to the great Polish violinist, Bronislaw Huberman – a child prodigy who, at 13, performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto in the presence of the composer, his playing of the Andante so perfect it reportedly reduced Brahms to tears. It was much later, in 1936, that Huberman himself was forced to weep over the fate of his precious violin. At a Carnegie Hall appearance in New York, part of a tour to raise funds to found a Palestinian orchestra that would help Jewish artists fleeing Hitler’s Germany, Huberman opted to perform on his “spare” violin – a Guarneri del Gesu no less – leaving his Strad backstage.

News reached him mid-concert that the Strad had been stolen. It was never heard of again until 1985, 38 years after Huberman’s death, when violinist Julian Altman confessed on his deathbed that the instrument in his case was none other than the missing Strad. He claimed to have paid the thief $100 for it, though some suspected he himself had been the felon. To conceal it over the years, Altman had caked it in shoe polish, even playing it in a gig with America’s National Symphony Orchestra.

After a spell under the chin of Amadeus String Quartet violinist Norbert Brainin, it fell into Bell’s hands in 2001 – he paid just under $4 million for a great fiddle and a good story.

“When I perform with the Israel Philharmonic,” he says, “I am always touched to think how many of the orchestra behind me are direct descendants of the musicians Huberman saved from the Holocaust with funds raised by concerts played on the instrument I play every day.” No doubt some of that reverence will be apparent in Bell’s performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields next January.

Musicians lucky enough to be in possession of such instruments tend to speak of a personality within them, often one that needs to be tamed. Nikolaj Znaider, who will play Bruch’s much-loved Violin Concerto No 1 with the Brussels Philharmonic in November, is hardly someone you’d expect to stand in awe of anything, let alone a violin. But the joy he gets from playing his 1741 Guarneri del Gesu, known as the “Ex Kreisler”, is the fact it can withstand any amount of power play. “I’m a big guy, I’m strong and I do martial arts,” he says. “But it can take it”.

And the story behind this instrument, which is on loan to him through the Royal Danish Theatre? A friend of his discovered it was the very instrument on which Fritz Kreisler, its most notable owner, had premiered Elgar’s Violin Concerto. When Znaider himself came to play that very work, he says, “the concerto and violin felt like a match made in heaven”.

There is, reckons 35-year-old Arabella Steinbacher, such a thing as “inner personality” in those wonderful old 18th century Italian instruments. Hers is the “Booth” Stradivarius, named after Madame Wilhelm von Booth, who purchased the instrument in 1855 so that her son could play in a string quartet made up entirely of Stradivarius instruments. “There are no mysterious stories around it, so far as I know,” she says. “Only that it belonged to such great players as Mischa Mischakoff and Iona Brown.”

But it definitely has personality, she says of the 1716 violin owned by the Nippon Music Foundation, on which she performs Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Dresden Philharmonic to bring the Sunday Series to a close next May. “Since we first ‘met’ I feel that it changed my playing. I learned a lot from it, like a relationship that goes well.”

Such a comparison would make her exact contemporary, cellist Sol Gabetta, something of a two-timer, for Gabetta shares her affections with two wonderful old cellos, a 1759 Guadagnini and 1729 Gofriller.

Why have two? It’s all to do with the aforementioned personality, how each suits a very different style of music. Gabetta reserves the “warm, pure, almost transparent sound” of the gut-stringed Guadagnini for early repertoire, while the “muscular and robust” Gofriller is perfect, she says, for the “dizzy heights” of Romanticism. For the Sunday Series opener in October – Saint- Saëns’ Cello Concerto No 1 with the Basel Symphony Orchestra – she’ll be playing the Gofriller, so we’ll get a chance to hear what she means.

*The Usher Hall’s 2017/18 Sunday Classics Season begins on 3 October, with the Basel Symphony Orchestra and Sol Gabetta performing Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No 1. Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields perform Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on 21 January. Nikolaj Znaider and the Brussels Philharmonic play Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 on 12 November. Arabella Steinbacher and the Dresden Philharmonic play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto on 27 May. For full programme details and to book tickets, visit www.usherhall.co.uk/sunday-classics