Pietro Guarneri of Mantua, 1695
Ronald Leonard, former principal cellist of the LA Philharmonic for 24 years, tells the story of how he came to play the only known cello by Pietro Guarneri of Mantua, 1695
I had been borrowing a Pressenda cello that was not particularly fantastic from my former teacher, and when I had to give it back I started looking around. I heard about this Peter of Mantua cello for sale in New York around 1964. The previous owner was Luigi Silva, a famous cellist and major teacher in the US. When he died, his wife wanted to sell the cello, but she was suspicious of dealers and wanted to sell it herself.
I went to look at it, but it was a very difficult procedure since Mrs Silva was distraught over her husband’s death. I felt almost guilty that I was even trying the cello! But she did agree to allow me to play on it for a few days. I immediately fell in love with it and I’ve played it ever since.
Whilst it has an Andrea Guarneri label inside – and it was actually sold by Wurlitzer as such – it is in fact the only cello by Peter of Mantua in existence. At the time that didn’t seem like a big deal, but it really is quite a rarity to have the one instrument made by such a famous maker.
I have used this cello through my entire life since I bought it. It’s not huge-sounding, but it projects very well, and it has a beautiful core to its sound. For me the colour variety and not just volume, is very important in an instrument – though there weren’t any problems with volume… well, at least I never had any complaints about not projecting when I was in the orchestra!
I have been tempted by some other instruments but this one has a uniqueness of sound which I find very appealing. When I was principal cellist of the LA Philharmonic I could have played their wonderful Stradivari cello [the ‘General Kyd, Leo Stern’ Stradivari of 1684] but I was never comfortable with it at the time. It has actually been repaired recently and it now sounds wonderful – Robert deMaine, the current principal cellist, now plays it and is very happy with it.
I recently bought a new Grancino from Tarisio. It has a totally different sound – perhaps a little louder? It’s always hard to figure this out with some instruments. It’s got a wonderful bass and is overall a very good sounding cello; I’m extremely happy to have both instruments.
The Piatigorsky Festival has always felt very personal to me since I held the position of Piatigorsky Chair while I was teaching at USC. It’s always a such exciting event with just an amazing number of first-class cellists from all over the world.