I’ve decided to keep the new cello! You can click on the picture for a bigger view of it.
The cello that I had been playing for the last decade has been in the family almost as long as I’ve been alive. Roz played it before me, and when I graduated to a full size cello, we alternated with it. When I moved up from playing piano in the intermediate division of youth orchestra to playing cello in the senior division, alternation wasn’t going to work since Roz was principal cellist in the senior division; we needed two cellos. So our family bought a new, surprisingly good sounding Chinese made cello. We ended up alternating on that new cello, and whenever we needed to play simultaneously for orchestra I used the old one.
When I moved to California I inherited the old cello. I’ve known for years that it wasn’t a very good instrument, but since I wasn’t playing much it didn’t matter. Lately that’s changed. A few months ago I ended up at a CMNC workshop where they had too many pianos and was forced to play cello for two days. It was there that Burke, the chamber coach for one of the days, said that I was better than the instrument I was playing. Now, Burke is a cellist, and our regular trio group knows him well – we’d signed up for one of his own workshops during the summer to work on the first Rachmaninoff piano trio. (I was playing piano. It’s not a well known piece, incidentally. It ends with a funeral march. Actually, the entire piece is an elegy. Despite that, it’s actually quite a fun piece for all three instruments.) So I value his opinion and took him seriously when he expressed some wonder at the weight of the cello I was playing – cheap cellos have thick wood, which make them heavy.
What set me to serious consideration of a new instrument was orchestra. I ended up being the only cellist for the Christmas concert in December, and was thus the de facto soloist on Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasy on Christmas Carols. It starts off with an extended cello solo and has other exposed cello bits within, and I’m afraid that I didn’t sound very good. Fifty percent of that was my own playing, but the other half I will blame solely on the instrument. The cello has never sounded good on the low strings, and wolfs like mad in fourth position on both the C and G strings; of course, the Williams piece starts off right there. On top of that, it’s definitely not a cello that projects well in a hall. Or in a closet, for that matter. On the recording, you can barely hear me play. Which is probably just as well.
Cellos are like cars: you don’t typically buy them online. Actually, instrument dealers tend to be more trusting than car dealerships: they typically let you take the instrument out for extended trials. On the other hand, I did more or less buy my car online, so why not my cello? And given the limited money I was willing to spend, that put me squarely in the category of “student”, workshop made cellos, so there didn’t seem to much point in going to a shop like Ifshin and comparing a limited selection of mass made instruments. I looked online and took a chance on Linda West’s online storefront based out of Santa Barbara. I kept an eye on a particular model made by Calin Wultur (a workshop in Romania) that she had nice things to say about, and after Pixar paid our film bonus I ordered the instrument online just before the New Year. Linda and I had a interesting e-mail exchange about cases, strings and cello setup, and a few nervous days later the instrument showed up.
So I’ve had it for almost two weeks now and I’m happy with it. For one thing, it’s a very nice instrument to look at. The back is a single solid piece of bird’s eye maple, which I understand to be a rare set up. The sound on the lower two strings is gorgeous, much more richer and powerful than the old cello. The D blends well with the G. I think the A is a bit thin, slightly nasal, but I suspect changing the string will help with that. Admittedly, I’m sure a lot of the difference between the old and new instruments is the setup – for one thing, the old cello has never had a bridge properly cut for it, so the strings were much too high above the fingerboard (making it much harder to play in upper positions). For another, the new cello has much nicer fittings: carbon fiber end pin, ebony wooden tail piece, and Linda also chose a Belgian style bridge and strings that match the instrument well. I think I disagree with her on the Jarger Forte that’s on the A, but the Belcanto C and G definitely sound great. There are some minor fit and finish issues, and I’m a little sad that the finish on one of the cornices got rubbed off during transit (it’s got Montagnana dimensions, so it’s wide, and barely fits in the case), but I definitely feel that this instrument is better than I play and is something that I can grow into for the next few years.
I ordered a new bow too. Arcos Brasil, silver. I wasn’t sure about the bow at first. Back then, Roz and I both had Dörfler bows, except hers was twice the cost of mine. However, I never noticed a difference in tone when I played with her bow, perhaps a slight difference in ease of spiccato. So I was very surprised to notice a significant difference in tone with the new bow. Even taking into account that I just had my old one rehaired, and the rosins were different, the new bow just makes the new cello sound just a bit better.
Here are some quick recordings I made this afternoon of the first 90 seconds or so of the Brahms E minor cello sonata – my favourite piece for trying out cellos. This is the old cello; compare it to the new one, with everything else more or less constant. Sorry about the very poor intonation; I haven’t practiced this piece in a while, and, well, my intonation sucks. The accompanist (me) wasn’t drunk, but if you know the piano part, you can hopefully excuse how hard it is to keep in time while playing by yourself on the off beats. My playing and recording set up doesn’t do justice to the differences between the two instruments, but you should be able to hear the completely different resonances between the two, particularly on the lower strings.