Are quartets of matched instruments the way to perfect harmony?

Four instruments from the same tree, varnished from the same pot, played by a single quartet. Does this make a better ensemble? Katherine Millett investigates

July 11, 2014

Television cameras greeted the Miró Quartet’s arrival at Alice Tully Hall, New York, in February 2003. ABC News ran an evening feature about the concert and the New York Times raved about it – and about the group’s two violins, viola and cello, which were made recently by French luthier Frank Ravatin. ‘It wasn’t only the phrases that nestled together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, clear-edged and close-fitting,’ wrote New York Times reviewer Anne Midgette. ‘The Miró’s actual instruments are cut from the same wood.’

Romance surrounds instruments formed from the same tree, varnished from the same pot. Bound by nature as well as by craft, they seem destined to transcend human conflicts, to enhance the uniquely intimate music of the string quartet. What could be more complete than the prospect of four musicians feeling and thinking together as they draw great music from instruments that breathed together as a sapling?

Two years later, however, only two of the Ravatins remained with the Miró. The instruments had not served all four members of the quartet equally nor, ultimately, the group as a whole. First violinist Daniel Ching and violist John Largess continue to relish the unity of sound they find in their Ravatins. ‘I like it that my viola and Daniel’s violin share some blending characteristics,’ says Largess, ‘because he and I have always had the most difficult time blending our sounds.’

Yet the three upper voices of the Ravatin quartet sounded so cohesive that the Miró decided blending could be too much of a good thing. ‘John had a hard time hearing my sound,’ says second violinist Sandy Yamamoto. ‘It blended too much with Daniel’s. All the Ravatins had a very nice blend, but it was hard to separate textures, especially for the inner voices.’

Cellist Joshua Gindele concluded that his instrument simply didn’t suit his personality: ‘When my bow hit the string, I felt I had to push.’ (Yamamoto now plays a Benjamin Ruth violin and Gindele plays a Phillip Injeian cello.)

Ravatin was surprised by the Miró’s reactions. ‘I thought the cello was one of the best I had ever made,’ he says. ‘The quartet liked the viola very much, but for me it was the most doubtful of the four instruments.’

Also surprised was Eric Chapman, a founding member of the Violin Society of America (VSA). ‘I heard the last concert the Miró gave on all four Ravatins,’ Chapman says, ‘and it was an incredible sound, so matched that it was like one instrument. That concert remains a memorable experience. I think it was a big mistake for the other two not to keep theirs.’

Ravatin and other makers of matched sets (defined here as those instruments intended to be played as a quartet, made by the same maker using the same wood and the same varnish) insist that similar wood does not necessarily produce similar sound.

‘Wood has very little influence on the sound of a stringed instrument,’ says Stefan-Peter Greiner of Bonn, Germany, whose matched set is played by the Keller Quartet. ‘I buy whole trees, so I can compare. I have made many instruments from a tree that began growing in Austria 450 years ago, and they sound completely different.’

Ravatin undertook the commission as an experiment conceived by philanthropist Mark Furth, and he has since made a second quartet. ‘When I made the set for the Miró,’ Ravatin says, ‘I thought of it as one instrument with 16 strings. With more distance, I see that a quartet needs a lot of colours in the sound, so one needs to concentrate on making four individual instruments, not one.’

What is it that quartets want? A blended sound or distinct voices? Should the two violins be made alike? If not, should the brighter one play the first part or the second? What wizardry can protect the low notes of the viola from being swallowed by the cello? Is the group best served by a cello with a singing tenor quality or with a deep, dark bass?

Evidence is hard to gather, because few professional quartets play matched sets. The economics are prohibitive. A maker without a commission must tie up time and materials for about a year to enter the instruments in competition. Also, selling an entire quartet is difficult. Seldom will all four members of the same string quartet have the need and the money to buy instruments at the same time – or the taste to choose each member of a matched set.

By talking with luthiers whose quartets have been commissioned by philanthropists, and with quartets who play those instruments, one learns that players are much more likely to believe that instruments made from the same wood produce a particularly unified sound. Makers are quick to point out that sound depends not only on wood, but also on the outline model, arching, thickness, ground layer and varnish of each instrument. Both groups acknowledge the importance of each musician’s tastes, technique and bow choice. And players ascribe more significance to set-up than makers, who tend to think their own adjustments bring out the best in their instruments. It’s a complex challenge that an increasing number of luthiers seems eager to address. The VSA reports that there were 21 entries to the ‘quartet’ category of its biennial competition in 2006, more than double the number there were when the category opened, at the request of makers, in 1982.

‘A successful quartet is seen as one of the ultimate achievements,’ Chapman says, ‘because it takes a lot more versatility than just making a fine violin, viola or cello. We leave it up to the makers to decide which instruments they want to put together. We don’t say the wood or the finish has to match.’ The competition does, however, require the maker to designate one violin as first and the other as second.

David Folland of Minnesota won the VSA’s quartet competition in 1988 and again in 1996. The first time, he used the same spruce and maple to make all four instruments. The second time, he didn’t. ‘To match tonally, you don’t want to use the same wood,’ he says. ‘If a quartet came to me now, I wouldn’t think in terms of matched wood at all. You want to make the middle voices strong enough to have their own character.’

Benjamin Ruth of Ithaca, New York, another prizewinner, agrees. ‘I wonder if it’s a romantic fantasy that you can match tone by matching wood,’ he says. ‘For my money, harder spruce works better for cellos because they have much flatter arching, proportionately. And you want softer maple for violas and cellos – maybe even a wood softer than maple.’

Yet members of the Alexander Quartet of San Francisco (pictured) insist that matching wood enhances the unified sound they achieve playing a quartet made by Francis Kuttner, commissioned by brewing tycoon Fritz Maytag in memory of his sister, Ellen Egger. ‘There is something special and spiritual about the instruments coming from the same wood,’ says cellist Sandy Wilson. ‘There’s a certain kind of communion, a little like four guys who love and hate each other after playing together all these years.’ The Alexander’s second violinist, Frederick Lifsitz, agrees. ‘They create a sound much greater than the sum of their parts,’ he says. ‘The complexity and spectrum of sound we can achieve when we perform or record on them is truly marvellous.’ The group plans to record Beethoven’s quartets on the instruments this year.

Although Kuttner used the same wood and varnish, he says his mission was to build four of the best instruments he could – not to make them sound alike. ‘If all four instruments have the ability to provide the nuances required by the players,’ he says, ‘then all is well.’

He made each of the two violins to sound good in all registers, not making one ‘darker’ and the other ‘soloistic’. In fact, the Alexander uses them one way, but other quartets, invited to play the instruments at an annual concert, have reversed them. ‘The violins are chameleonic,’ says Wilson. ‘If our guys switch instruments, I can’t tell the difference.’

The group considers the Kuttner viola to be the star of the ensemble for both its visual beauty and rich tone. The cello is more controversial because, while Wilson says he likes a deep, loud bass, his colleagues prefer the cello adjusted to emphasise its tenor qualities. Kuttner stresses the effects of string selection, bow selection and, most importantly, the player’s technique and tonal preferences. ‘I think that for the owner of the quartet there is something nice about having wood from the same tree,’ he says, ‘because then the instruments are truly siblings. But by no means is it necessary that the wood be matched.’

One day in 2006, moving men delivered a huge crate to the Enso Quartet, a young ensemble then studying at Rice University in Texas. ‘We had to open it with a crowbar,’ recalls second violin John Marcus. Inside, the musicians found four additional crates, festooned with packing material, which eventually revealed a quartet of matching instruments. Made by Nigel Harris and Roger Sheldon of London, the instruments had been commissioned by New Zealand philanthropist Christopher Marshall.

‘They looked identical, except for their size,’ says Marcus, ‘and they had fingerboards but no strings, chin rests but no bridges. Harris flew over two weeks later to string them up. We guessed which violin should be first and which second, and it turned out we were right.’

Unlike Kuttner, Harris has strong convictions about the part each violin should play. ‘Our tonal objective,’ he says, ‘was to make a quartet that would produce a thick, creamy quality, but with big projection in the concert hall. The type of sound that projects well has a strong content of higher harmonics. By using less dense and stiffer wood for the first violin than for the second, we gave it a resonance that was at its best in the higher registers, while that of the second violin was at its best in the lower registers. We allowed the quartet to choose which of the violins would be first and second, which they did in about ten minutes.’

Harris directed special attention to the viola because, he says, unlike violins and cellos, the proportions of violas mean the instruments do not tend naturally toward a bright sound. ‘They can sound sludgy, and muddy the texture of a quartet,’ he says. ‘This is encouraged by violists who choose a sound with a depth under the ear that has been achieved by cutting the high harmonics. It might sound all right to the player, but it will lack projection. We use more gradual arching than most viola models for the belly,’ says Harris, who has published papers about the relative arching of top and bottom plates. ‘And while good control of the arching shape can achieve a very strong output of overtones,’ he continues, ‘they can be wiped out if the first coat of varnish penetrates the wood even slightly. We have developed a first coat of varnish that has extremely low penetration into the wood surface, and this enhances the overtones.’

The Enso Quartet credits its Harris–Sheldon instruments with helping the ensemble achieve clarity and cohesion. ‘There is a similar quality to the sound of our instruments,’ says Marcus, ‘and I think as a young quartet in America, you can’t afford not to have a unified sound, especially in competitions. You have to reach the highest level of maturity before you can express individual personalities without pulling the music apart.’

Given the difficulties involved with making a matched quartet of instruments, one might wonder why makers bother to do it at all. Folland says that making a quartet is uniquely gratifying. ‘Hearing professionals play my instruments together is the most enjoyable, rewarding experience I have as a violin maker,’ he explains. ‘Even if I don’t make the instruments specifically to be played together, their sounds have something in common because I made them.’

Reflecting on his experience with the Miró, Ravatin responds philosophically. ‘As a maker, the main thing I face is humility in front of old masters and musicians,’ he says. ‘It’s a complex process that will drive a musician to like an instrument. It’s a mix of sound, comfort, volume and colours. When it works, it’s a great satisfaction – and it’s nearly impossible to say why it works.

Photo: The Alexander Quartet and its matched set of instruments by American luthier Francis Kuttner © Rory Earnshaw

This article was first published in The Strad’s August 2008 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here

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