For almost two hundred years, the 1742 ‘Rovelli’  Guarneri ’del Gesù’ violin has remained unplayed. Now in the hands of Liya Petrova, the violinist shares her journey of discovery with this instrument

Liya Petrova © Lyodoh Kaneko (7)

Violinist Liya Petrova © Lyodoh Kaneko

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How did you come across the 1742 ’Rovelli’ Guarneri del Gesù violin? 

Before getting the chance to play on the Rovelli, I used to play on an outstanding instrument, the 1735 ‘Helios’ Carlo Bergonzi violin. After Stradivari and Guarneri ’del Gesù’, Bergonzi is, in my opinion, the most exquisite Cremonese maker. When you play on such instrument, it feels like there is only one step up left: Stradivari or Del Gesù.

So, both for my personal culture and with the inner hope of one day finding ‘the one’, I got to try quite a lot of Strads and Del Gesùs in the past 3 years, of various qualities and personalites, but somehow, my Bergonzi was always putting up a good fight with them. One day, I got a call from the French couple that has been supporting me for some years now, who have truly became my second family:

’Liya, are you in Paris?’

’Yes,’ I replied

’Great, can you be here in two hours to try some instruments, and one in particular?’

’OK!,’ I said. I went there, and that ’one in particular’ was the Rovelli. I will never forget this day, because something was very different that time: there was Rovelli, magnificent, powerful and deeply touching, in a word: grandiose, and then there were all the others… that were not the Rovelli.  

What were your first impressions on the instrument? Is it easy to play, or did it take a while to get accustomed? 

That day, I had a feeling with this violin that I never had before, despite the fact I was lucky to play on many beautiful instruments: I felt like ’this is my voice’, through this instrument. Playing on it was incredibly natural, very instinctive. Of course, getting to know a violin (especially one with such strong personality)  is a long process. I guess it takes years to fully master it! But it felt immediately like the match was a perfect one for me, both sound-wise and digitally on the instrument, and that learning to play it would be a very enjoyable path.

It has been four months now, and I feel we know each other already much better.

Does the instrument have any particular characteristics of note? 

Rovelli has all the great characteristics you would expect from a golden period Del Gesù: great personality, power and intensity. What is impressive is that this violin is spectacular in all registers: Telluric and strong in the low register, warm and unusually powerful in the medium, and bright and golden in the high register.

Another thing is very special with this instrument, and it has to do with tone quality: when you hear Rovelli in a concert hall, it always sounds close to you. I call it ’presence’ - some kind of perpetual proximity, due to the wonderful quality of its tone. I think it is one of the marks of great string instruments, their sound finds their way to you in any conditions, in a good or bad sounding hall, from close or from far, and in forte or piano dynamics.

As artistic director of La Musikfest Parisienne, which pieces are you most looking forward to exploring your instrument? 

First of all, it is important to talk of the path of Rovelli. This instrument was very intensively played during its first century, until 1838, and especially by his owner at the time Pietro Rovelli, who was a competitor of Paganini. But then, after that and for almost 200 years, the Rovelli violin made no more public appearances! It was successively owned by private families and never found his way to stage until four months ago when I started to play it. I realised something quite incredible: it had never played on stage (and probably not privately either) any of the repertoire for violin from 1838! No Mendelssohn Concerto, Brahms, or Schumman… and even less Stravinsky or Walton! Basically, the violin is discovering all of this incredible repertoire with me! This trimester for exemple, I’m playing concertos by Bartok, Glazunov, Nielsen, Korngold, and Sibelius. What an immense privilege and responsibility to be the musician that gets to introduce all of these wonderful pieces to the Rovelli violin!

One mystery remains for me: how does an instrument that has not truly played for two centuries sound this good today? Part of the answer is probably that he was played super intensively in the beginning of his life, which seems to be paramount for a violin’s evolution, but this is also surely where Del Gesù’s magic lies. The sound he gave to his instruments goes through space…and time!

The 5th edition of La Musikfest Parisienne takes place from 13 to 15 March 2024 at Salle Cortot, Paris. Find out more here.

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