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

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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.