Listening to one’s instrument in a concert performance is a highlight for any maker. Getting to hear four of them in a rocking rendition of quartets 1,2 and 3 of Bela Bartok is even better. Last evening’s performance at the exquisite Engelmann Recital Hall had me reminiscing over the 25 years its been since I made these instruments. Hard to believe it’s been that long —1987— since Fritz Maytag and I got together at his Anchor Brewery on Potrero Hill in San Francisco to discuss the possibility of creating a quartet in memory of his sister, Ellen Egger.
A few weeks later I was off to Bubenreuth, Germany(West!) searching for the best wood I could find. And I did. In spades. I managed to convince a wood dealer to sell me some exceptionally beautiful matched Bosnian maple that was cut in the early 50’s. The violin and viola backs were in one piece, and the cello back was from the same trunk. Down in Cremona, my teacher Francesco Bissolotti gifted me really well seasoned spruce from his own stash of wood harvested in the early 70’s in Panneveggio in the val di Fiemme, deep in the Italian Alps. This, too, came from one felled trunk.
I decided that the thing to do would be not to think in terms of creating a quartet per se, but rather, just make the four best instruments possible and let the musicians sort them out. I used the Stradivari P form to make the two violins. For the viola I trusted in my own “Mantovan” model loosely influenced by Camillus Camilli. And for the cello I referred back to Strad and his noble “B” form from which so many notable cellos sprang.
The end result surprised me. I knew they would sound good individually. But I didn’t expect that the sum would be greater than its parts. Listening to them the first time at a rehearsal in Legion of Honor in SF moved both Fritz and myself. 25 years later, with the Alexanders probing, pouncing and plucking in the first half of the Bartok cycle I was carried back to those early impressions of a fresh, vibrant sound, now more burnished, but still quite muscular. 25 years are not much when considering a 400+ years life expectancy. But hearing them now gives me a great satisfaction and confidence that the process is heading in the right direction.
Bravo Zak, Fred Paul and Sandy. I’m a lucky luthier.
— Francis Kuttner