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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On cellos and flutes, with
classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

Please tell us about your cello. When made, by whom, and how many cellos do you have? Also what kind of strings do you use? I'm due for a new set and am always interested in what other folks use.

Yours in three clefs,
Caroline near Los Angeles

Dear Caroline in three clefs,

Good to hear from you!!!

Many moons ago, when I started the cello my parents bought me a deplorably-toned yet still very beautiful dark cello which I called Lulu, in honour of a very dear, half-Italian, half-Belgian friend I had when we'd lived in Burma. This cello, I have to tell you, met a harder fate than even a VERY duff cello deserved, at the hands of my (otherwise blameless) mother.

What happened was this: I called her from school to say that I had an unexpected school orchestra rehearsal, and could she please rush my cello to school for same. In her anxiety so to do without loss of time, she very carefully put my cello (in its soft padded case) behind the wheels of her current car and then very cleverly ran over it ... I will never forget the moment when I came home (simmering with teenage fury over my mother's not having brought me my cello) and demanded to know exactly why my mother had failed me. She said, 'Alice, I've got rather bad news ...'

It's a good thing that I am such a wonderfully warm, forgiving person!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

However, there was a bright spot and this was it: my Mom, stricken by guilt, went out and bought me a very reasonably decent German cello which (in tribute to my sister Kathy) I called Katrinka. Katrinka did me proud for some years, but (before long) my cello teacher was moaning that I needed something exceptional, and this turned out to be Liberty Bell.

This very lovely cello, a Hill, was so called by me because it boasted the mother of all sound-post cracks down its one-piece back. Thousands of parents would have fought shy of so severely cracked a cello, but I loved it and played on it for years, or until enough people said I needed something still better. I then went out and -- with parental and that time even grandparental support -- bought my current cello, a rare and gorgeous instrument by Szepessy Béla (or, depending on exactly how Hungarian you happen to be) Béla Szepessy. He was a complicated soul, having lived in London for so long as to be considered an English mid-1800s maker, yet still -- bizarrely -- completely Hungarian ... He only made four cellos, and if anyone knows who has the other three I would love to know!!!!

I also bought a lovely bow, by Louis Bazin, trading in three lesser bows for the purpose, though (in my dreams) I am always playing Rostropovich's Tourte (which I only once had a go at) instead.

As for strings, I personally swear by Larsen soloist A and D, combined with Helicore G and C, but this is so personal a taste as to be hardly worth mentioning. On my Hill I found that covered gut gave the greatest thrill, esp on the two low strings. Some UK shops are now offering a service where they (for a modest fee) allow you to try out loads of different strings, just to see what suits your instrument without spending enough to put down a modest-sized house mortgage, which I think is simply a brilliant idea. Don't know if anyone in California has cottoned on to this idea or not ...

I have also owned numerous baroque instruments, including a lovely (modern replica) viola da gamba given to me by my parents as a graduation present from Indiana University and a baroque reproduction of an Amati cello made specifically for me by Timothy Batchelar, along with two lovely classical cellos, one by an unknown maker around 1800 (which oddly enough inspired my second novel) and a more modern version of same, made for a friend by Michael Watson, with a rather more projecting tone.

Hope this answers your question,

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

A flute is not a refined recorder any more than a bat is a refined bird or a cello is a refined guitar.

(Somewhat) indignantly,
Malcolm Tattersall

Dear Malcolm,

You are undoubtedly correct, technically, but I am resolutely pig-ignorant where non-string instruments are concerned. What I was referring to (sorry if it makes you hate me forever) is the SOUND of the flute. While it is true that the flute has much more sweetness and projection than a recorder (as well as being without that whiskery, husky, heavy-smoker, asthmatic quality that the recorder possesses) it still toots. Sometimes it toots high, like a superior (or more refined) soprano recorder and sometimes a bit -- not very much -- lower (like an alto recorder) but the tootiness, sadly, persists. This means that its tone colour is -- and this is only my opinion, mind -- vaguely single-faceted and tepid, compared to the voice, or strings, or even the piano. A flute just always sounds flutey, no matter how exquisitely it is phrased, or how cleverly the flautist manages the dynamics. That's why the flute should stick to what it does best, water-colouring an orchestra, and not stick itself where it's not wanted, such as in a solo recital or (shudder) a quartet of flutes or similar.

Sorry!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (And now you are at liberty to despise my silly cello taste as much as you like!!!!!!!!!!!)

Yours, like Caesar's wife, ready for anything*,

(*copyright, P G Wodehouse)

Copyright © 10 December 2004 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK



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