After his Lorenzo Guadagnini was stolen in 2003, cellist Alban Gerhardt bought a beaten-up 1710 Matteo Goffriller – a challenging instrument to play because it’s so large.

For me, there was no other profession in the world than musician. Coming from a musical family, I didn’t know anybody outside of that world (except maybe our teachers in school), as my parents’ entire circle of friends were musicians, and music has been almost as important to me as eating and drinking.

Since there was a piano in my home, I played on that as soon as I could stand. This fascination was so strong that my mother parked me twice a week at the home of a friend, who taught me at a very early age, mainly improvising and having fun.

Alban Gerhardt. Photo © Kaupo Kikkas

I began playing the cello when I was eight. My younger sister started playing the violin (as I had unsuccessfully done at the age of three) and my mother suggested a string instrument for me as well – “How about the cello?” – and just to get her out of my face, I agreed to that. But even in my second lesson, I asked my teacher to show me how to do vibrato on the cello. I had quite an inferiority complex because, unlike my mother, I didn’t have vibrato when I sang, and my mother [who was a coloratura soprano] claimed she had natural vibrato already as a child. So, when my teacher showed me how to vibrate on the cello, I somehow managed it quite quickly and was exhilarated – I had found my voice!

When I started preparing for big competitions at the age of 20, there was no time to practise the piano, so I stopped playing it, which I regret very much. It’s on my to-do list to get into shape again and accompany myself with the César Franck Sonata [for Violin and Piano], which I had played quite a lot with my father, a violinist, and my first girlfriend, a flautist.

I only ever wanted to be an orchestra musician; my plan was to become a member of the orchestra of my father Axel, the Berlin Philharmonic, and as a pianist, I couldn’t have done that. But I do have some live recordings of myself playing both the piano and the cello at the age of 16, and the piano playing was far superior to the cello playing back then. If I was my father, I probably would have convinced that boy to study conducting, as my real interest was in opera, accompanying and music in general. Neither the piano nor the cello as instruments fascinated me enough. 

Now, I have so much respect for conducting and what it demands on so many different levels that I am quite happy to just continue playing the cello – a lovely instrument and so much easier to tame than an entire orchestra.

Alban Gerhardt. Photo © Kaupo Kikkas

“Beaten-up” but beautiful

My previous cello, a Lorenzo Guadagnini, was stolen in 2003. I had owned it for 13 years, the first of my professional life.

After the insurance had paid for its loss, various dealers knew that I was looking for a new instrument, and one of them in Hamburg contacted me in 2004 about a beaten-up, far-too-big Goffriller cello, and said he thought I should take a look. I did, played a concert on it, and liked it. I didn’t love it; love for me is reserved for people, not objects.

The fact that it was beaten up doesn’t affect the sound, only the value, which was lucky as otherwise I could not have afforded to buy it.

The famous luthier Charles Beare told me back then that it was the only uncut Goffriller he knew of, so that’s quite special in itself. Normally these ‘church basses’ were reduced in size to be played more easily during processions (when the cellists walked while playing). You can still see the little mark of the button on which they used to fix the belt.

It’s probably the darkest-sounding cello I have played – very warm and round, not loud per se, but it does fill a hall. It has a very well-balanced sound. On the A string, we cellists like to have more punch, so that’s maybe its weakness; the sound high up never sounds like a violin, it’s always a husky cello sound. The biggest weakness is its size. It’s good for the sound, but hard to play as the left hand has to stretch out much more than on any other cello.

I am playing Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra this March.

For me, this is an incredibly personal and intimate piece. As an artist, the biggest demand for me is to not play it as it’s always being played; I always aim to create something more or less from scratch each time I perform, otherwise one might just play a recording. With a piece which has been played more than any other concerto in the cello repertoire, it is much harder to do so, especially as the piece is overloaded with “performing-traditions“ which have very little to do with what Dvořák had put into the score originally (already the second theme of the first movement is marked with pianissimo by the composer, yet the “tradition” has many cellists play as loud they can).

Dvořák did an incredible job balancing the score for cello and orchestra. If everybody follows their dynamical markings, the solo cello will never be in danger of being covered. I remember the first few times I played it, I had issues with endurance, but over the years I learnt how to maintain my energy. We (orchestra, conductor and me) need to think of long lines and all the beautiful details in the piece while maintaining our energy throughout – always a very fulfilling challenge to take on!

by Alban Gerhardt

This article has been taken from Limelight Magazine. This is an extended version of an article originally published in Limelight’s March 2024 issue.