A Cellist’s Tale

While we’re on the subject of my cello’s biography, perhaps we should start from the beginning.

I received my first cello as a Christmas present when I was one year old from my godfather Jürg Buchwalder, a master violin maker. It had only two strings and was later used to climb cupboards. My second cello was a converted viola with wooden endpins. When I was six years old, I began my battle with the high notes and E-string of the violin. This lasted for four years—during which I fantasized about becoming a star violist. At that time there were five professional cellists in our family, but I had, thus far, seemed to have escaped what seemed like my inexorable fate. At the age of nine, however, my family took me to the Casals Festival in Prades, France, where I had the wonderful experience of witnessing the great Hungarian-American cellist János Starker. That summer was life-altering: my burning desire was now to be able to play the cello. My mother gave me my first cello lesson with a broom in her hand on the stairs of our caravan.

My first full cello was by Claude Lebet. Unfortunately, this cello was damaged in one of my few outbursts of despair, after being hit by a flying study booklet of 40 Popper Études. After that, I played on a new instrument by Wolfram Neureiter for a while.

Thanks to the support of my parents, who are also both cellists, I began my career with vintage Italian cellos. First, I had a cello attributed to Carlo Giuseppe Testore from the 17th century. This amazing instrument had once been played by Maestro Arturo Toscanini! I played my concert exam of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante on this cello. For my audition at the Bavarian State Opera, my father provided me with the Giovanni Batista Rogeri, also dating from the 17th century. When I took up my position as first solo cellist in Munich, I received the Giovanni Battista Grancino, (another 17th-century instrument), from my very esteemed predecessor Peter Wöpke. A year later, the Life Foundation and Jürgen Gessner bought and presented me with a Matteo Goffriller cello. For context, Pablo Casals played most of his career on a Matteo Goffriller cello. In between, I spent a short time with a cello that had a front made by the important Venetian violin maker Domenico Montagnana and a back by G. B. Rogeri.

On 9 December 2022, the unimaginable happened. I was loaned a cello by the most famous of all great Italian masters, Antonio Stradivari, for an indefinite period of time. Playing a Stradivarius is an incredible gift—a wish I would never have dared to make. I am most grateful to be able to express myself through such a spectacular instrument.

© Frank Schroth | Fotografie

History of the “L’Évêque de la Rochelle” Cello

© Frank Schroth | Fotografie

The Stradivari cello bearing the name “L’Évêque de la Rochelle” (1690) is one of only sixty cellos made by Antonio Stradivari when the master still controlled every single aspect of his oeuvre. Antonio Stradivari (c. 1644-1737) is regarded as the greatest violin maker in history; he also made other string instruments, such as violas, lutes, mandolins, and cellos. Around 1,100 instruments came out of his workshop in Cremona, Italy, and about 650 of these survive today.

The “L’Évêque” is one of four cellos by Stradivari with a back made from the beautifully flamed tiger maple, and it is the sister to the equally famous Stradivari cello “Visconti da Madrona” made in 1684-94.

The history of this instrument can be traced almost without gaps for over 150 years and reads as follows:

In 1862, Monsieur L’Évêque, a wealthy amateur musician from La Rochelle, France, fell in love with this cello at the shop of Monsieur Gand, a famous violin maker in Paris, and bought it. His fine collection of two Stradivarius violins and a great viola thus became a quartet. Among other instruments, L’Évêque owned a very fine Stradivari violin made in 1720, which today is known as “The Frost”.

At the time of the purchase, the cello was still uncut—early cellos were built on the larger dimensions of the 17th century, and most were later cut down because it was difficult to play them. L’Évêque decided on a careful reduction in size of the cello, which was carried out by a well-known Parisian restorer, Claude Victor Rambaux.

The complete quartet stayed in L’Évêque’s possession until his death in 1901. The whole quartet was then purchased by his close friend Marcel Delmas, a wealthy sugar merchant. After Delmas’ death in 1914, the cello was given to Parisian violinist Daniel Herrmann to organize its sale. The cello then went to Caressa & Français, a Parisian dealership, which sold it to Rudolph Wurlitzer of New York in 1917.

Subsequently, the cello went to London in 1920 to be carefully restored by W. E. Hill & Sons. According to the Hills, the rib heights were slightly lower before the restoration. In 1921, after the restoration was successfully completed, the cello returned to Wurlitzer in New York. The instrument was then sold to collector and keen chamber musician Herbert Nathan Strauss, who had made a fortune as the owner of the famous department store Macy’s.

The “L’Évêque cello once again became part of a quartet of Stradivarius instruments, which included the “Strauss” violin of 1708 and the world-famous “Medici Tuscan” viola of 1690.

In 1929, the Strauss family was presented with the possibility of obtaining the “Davidoff” Stradivari cello of 1712. To facilitate this acquisition, Wurlitzer and Hill each took part ownership of the cello only to sell it on to the company of Hamma & Co. in Stuttgart in the same year. Hamma then sold the cello to the Cologne-based music enthusiast Alfred Forster, to whom it would belong for the next 30 years. After Forster’s death in 1960, the cello was kept by his heirs for another 5 years until it was sold in 1965 to the famous German cellist Prof. Klaus Storck.

Storck, however, soon found himself in unforeseen financial trouble and was forced to sell the Stradivari cello to Henry Werro of Bern, in order to pay back a loan to the city of Cologne, which the major of that city had personally granted him. To whom Henry Werro then sold the cello is not known but we do know that it was sold to a private collector in Japan.

In the beginning of the new millennium, the “L’Évêque” found its way back to Europe and was sold by the London dealer Peter Biddulph to the celebrated cellist Adrian Brendel, who for numerous years played all his concerts and recordings on this cello, including a spectacular set of the complete recordings of the Beethoven Sonatas for Cello and Piano, together with his father, the world-famous pianist Alfred Brendel.