Leonard, who has known this instrument for some years, is confident of the dating of the Barjansky to 1690: ‘It was made just before the cello model was established after 1700, so was originally built on a wider, Amati-style model, but was moving towards that later one (it’s length is slightly small at 29” 15/16”).’ It has relatively high arching and an original neck, and was sympathetically cut down in the 19th century, with wood taken from the centre joint, preserving its original outline and very fine back. This deeply-flamed, almost horizontal narrow curl maple back is in remarkable condition, with the golden ground of the original varnish still glowingly present, as it is on the ribs. The corners and pear wood scroll are also in sharp condition. Leonard has cleaned out blackened cracks in the medium pine table, and added a new bridge: ‘We’ve been careful not to make it too heavy so the feet don’t block the sound. There are so many overtones possible on each note, it’s important nothing interferes with them.’
The cello takes its name from the celebrated Russian virtuoso Alexandre (Serge) Barjansky, friend of Delius and dedicatee of Bloch’s Schelomo, who owned it from 1909 until 1922, and in whose hands it appeared in print:
‘At length we found two seats in a third-class carriage… instead of the customary eight persons, there were eleven of us. And a baby. And Barjansky’s cello. We could not place it on the luggage racks, already stacked high with the pathetic objects salvaged by these people in escaping from their homes. Finally we wedged it between us. There were protests from passengers, who demanded that it be placed in the baggage car, which… would have meant the last of the irreplaceable instrument.’
This was 1914, just after the outbreak of the First World War and Odessan-born Barjanksy and his wife, Catherine, a sculptor, were escaping from Paris. Her account (from her memoir Portraits with Backgrounds) uncovers a moment of high jeopardy in the history of this well-cared-for cello. Earliest records from the 1850s reveal it was owned by illustrious maker Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, from whom it passed to the Marquis de Pluvie, described by Hills as ‘a most enthusiastic amateur violoncellist’. It was then owned by a musicologist and a French Count, before passing via dealers across Europe to George Hart in London, from whom Barjansky acquired it. Before Lloyd-Webber bought it at Sotheby’s it had lain in a bank vault for at least twenty years.
Naturally, Leonard won’t be drawn on the exact reserve figure set for the Barjansky, but he comments that Julian Lloyd-Webber can expect it to sell for more than ten times the price he bought it for in 1983, which was, at the time, a record (of £460,000?). He has one or two Strad violins through his workshops each year, and his research in 2014 revealed that over the last decade Strads have risen in price by an average of nearly 11%, and some up to 20%. But Strad cellos are comparatively rare, Leonard explains: ‘Let’s say of the sixty or so cellos made by Stradivarius, only thirty to thirty-five are in circulation and good playable condition today. So they are very precious.’
‘While a violinist might choose the rougher, wilder power of the Guarneri del Gesù over the sweetness of a Strad violin sound, if it suits their playing approach, it’s not possible to make that comparison with cellos. Goffrillers or Montagnanas may be bigger in size and have a darker tone, but a Strad cello can have outstanding projection and depth along with that characteristic golden, balanced sound.’ Which is why Strads are the instruments of choice for Yo Yo Ma, Heinrich Schiff, Steven Isserlis and Anner Bylsma, to name a handful.
Listening to Leonard play, it’s striking how richly complex and even the sound is across all strings, with no harsh edge detectable even on the A string. For Lloyd-Webber, it was the ideal voice for the concertos of Elgar, Britten, Walton and Delius. ‘Barjansky played Delius’s concerto many times and I did sometimes feel the cello “knew” works’. He cherishes the memory of a performance of the Delius with the Philharmonia in the Oxford Sheldonian during Delius’s 150th birthday year: ‘It was one of those times when everything felt magically right.’ Another indelible memory is of playing the Elgar Cello Concerto under Sir Neville Marriner on the night of the final ‘changeover’ from British to Chinese rule. ‘The Elgar closed the first half, and the second half was Chinese music. All the politicians were there and the atmosphere in the hall was electric. I hadn’t expected the extraordinary intensity of that occasion: it really did feel like the close of an era.’
He hopes very much that whoever buys it, ‘I would like it to be played and not sit in
some museum.’ Without doubt, the Barjansky deserves to be heard.