Image: ACO Principal Violin Helena Rathbone
Violins made by Italian luthier Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711-1786) are regarded as some of the finest in the history of string instruments. We've caught up with ACO Principal Violin Helena Rathbone, who plays a 1759 Guadagnini violin loaned to the ACO by the Commonwealth Bank, to find out what it's like to be the custodian of one of the most coveted instruments in the world.
When did you first see and hear the 1759 Guadagnini violin?
I remember the Guadagnini arriving in Australia in 1996, when Richard (Tognetti) brought back two Guadagnini violins to try – one looked quite blonde in colour, much lighter wood, and then there was this one. They were roughly the same amount of money and it was immediately clear to all of us that this one was just gorgeous. The lighter one was quite bright and strident, but Richard immediately fell for the darker, richer instrument, as did I. And I’ve been in love with the Guadagnini ever since.
You have played the Guadagnini since 2006, how has having access to such an instrument changed your playing?
When Richard was loaned the Guarneri del Gesù, I became the custodian of the Commonwealth Bank’s Guadagnini. Actually, it was given to me on Christmas Eve 2006 and I couldn’t believe it for a long time - that it was actually mine to play.
I do think it has changed the way I play. Ultimately you control the instrument, but it also speaks to you. There are so many more characters and colours available to you on this instrument than on my own. It lets you explore these different worlds, somehow a really fine instrument does control you to a certain degree as well. It has its own really strong character.
It doesn’t change your ‘voice’ particularly – if you give a violinist five instruments to try, they’ll still sound like the same violinist, it doesn’t make you a genius and it doesn’t make you play more in tune. Having said that, the clarity a great instrument gives you under the ear makes it easier to find the centre of the note. Interestingly this instrument is very similar under the ear as it is for the audience, rich, dark and strong.
Image: Helena Rathbone plays the 1759 Guadagnini violin.
Has it physically changed the way you play?
Yes, because I don’t have to try as hard. On my own violin I was really trying to coax the sound out by using more pressure in the bow which is really the opposite of what you should be doing, but if something’s not loud enough or rich enough you try harder, and actually you should just release it to let the sound ring more. But with this instrument you just have to touch it and it happens.
And in terms of your confidence?
Yes, because I know that I’m enjoying the sound I’m making that bit more. You stand taller when you’re playing a really great instrument.
How would you describe the instrument?
Actually violins often look how they sound. This one is dark in colour and rich and strong and that’s how it sounds – I call it “The Chocolate Monster”.
Image: the 1759 Guadagnini violin, affectionately known by Helena as "The Chocolate Monster".
The instrument is over 250 years old, how do you play contemporary music on it?
Well, it’s an old instrument, but it has a modern set-up, so you can play anything on it! If you want to play older music on it, you can set it up with gut strings and play with a baroque bow. It’s very much at home with a lower pitch, and rings even more, but I think most instruments do with slightly less pressure. So, just because it was made in 1759, it doesn’t mean you can’t play a piece from 2016 on it.
You regularly travel around the country with the ACO, as well as to remote and regional areas with ACO Collective, do you take another violin on the road?
No, we take it everywhere, Narrogin… Katanning… where else do we go? Everywhere! It’s in remarkably good nick, actually. Taking it to all of these places, you worry about the humidity levels and being in an out of air-conditioning all the time, but in the time I’ve had it, it has been very robust – much more so than my own violin which was made around the same time. Some violins are really sensitive, but the Guadagnini is really physically strong. You do have to be really careful and aware of looking after it, as we take our instruments from the deserts of Central Australia to the snowfields of Japan, but I don’t treat it any differently to any violin I have had, you treat any instrument carefully. People often ask ‘how do you even pick it up, it’s so valuable?’, but it’s really become just an extension of me.
What effect does it have on people who see or hear it for the first time?
For someone who has never seen or heard a fiddle like that it is just as special for a person in a country town as it is for someone in Sydney. It’s like seeing a painting by a famous artist, like seeing a Monet or a Renoir for the first time, it’s really of that ilk. That’s why the Commonwealth Bank have it in their Fine Art Collection because it is a piece of fine art, but the difference is that it is portable and you can play it to a school child in Katanning, and an audience member in the Opera House and they’re both going to experience the beauty, strength and the character of the sound it produces. People often ask to see it because it is a beautiful thing to look at, as well as hear, it’s an exquisite object, the wood is gorgeous to look at, it’s dark and rich. The craftsmanship is really amazing up close, the fact that it’s a one-piece back – violin backs are often made of two pieces put together – the colours that shine when you twist it in the light. It’s very beautiful.
The ACO also has a range of instruments from the ‘Golden Age’ on loan from donors and benefactors, including a Stradivarius, how has having such amazing instruments changed the sound of the Orchestra and/or the way you play as an ensemble?
Having the Guadagnini helps the sound of the Orchestra. It was in the First Violins when Richard was playing it all the time and now there’s a really fine violin in the middle of the Orchestra.
As more people within the Orchestra have the same experience that I have had playing the Guadagnini, their confidence and playing gets better and the sound is only going to be enhanced. Strangely all of these fine instruments play really well together, even though there are hundreds of years between the earliest and latest instrument, they all have that intangible quality to them.
When Richard first had the del Gesù we played it and the Guadagnini together and found very quickly that they play very well together, they’re good playmates. The Guadagnini fits very well in the Second Violin position, because it’s a very supportive sound and is not as bright as a Strad, so in my role it fits really well. It also works very well as a First Violin because it’s a very strong character. So, we’re really lucky, unbelievably lucky, to have this family of incredible instruments.
And here's a great video by (the late) Studio ArtBreak where Helena performs Bach's Andante from Violin Sonata in A minor, and delves into the history behind the violin.