Beware the phony ‘Mahler’ Stradivari

The violist Antoine Tamestit has been telling the Strad of his struggles playing what he refers to as the ‘Mahler’ Stradivari.

The name is a complete misrepresentation.

The instrument, dated 1672, was bought by a Swiss amateur cellist called Rolf Habisreutinger on July 7, 1960. That date happened to be the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s birth, so the new owner named it his ‘Mahler’ Strad.

It has since gone out on loan to several soloists who assume it has something personal to do with the great composer and refer to it as ‘he’.

Beware of phony attibutions.

photo: Habisreutinger Foundation

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  • How is the name connected to the quality of the instrument? Would it be better if it had belonged to Mahler? Is it any worse since Mahler never owned the instrument? Apparently, the owner was a fan of Mahler and rich enough to buy a Stradivari. I fail to see what the story is.

    • People, being idiots, attribute greater value to an object if it’s been touched by someone notable. For example grifters would sell stuff on ebay and get $20 more for a pair of thrift store shoes if they claim someone historically notable wore them. Unfortunately musicians also, or maybe I should say particularly because we tend to be concerned with passing on centuries old tradition, fall for this.

  • Dear Mr Lebrecht,

    Please always check your facts when writing any article. That is essence of journalism, right?

    The “Mahler” Stradivari never went on loan to the great violists you name.
    And no respectable violist or knowledgeable person think this Viola was ever own by Mahler, who did not play Viola.

    And maybe “phony” is not a very respectful adjective for one of the most beautiful Stradivarius.

    Respectfully,

    Antoine Tamestit

    • Dear Mr Tamestit

      The foundation that owns the viola lists the names I mentioned as those who had played it on loan.

      You yourself refer to the viola as ‘he’ because the Mahler name is spuriously attached to it.

      Why not stick to the facts – since you are such a stickler – and call the viola by its deserved name, the ‘Habisreutinger’?

      with all due respect

      Norman Lebrecht

      • In support of Antoine Tamestit’s comment: I was just on the website of the Haibsreutinger Foundation and found no mention of Tabea Zimmermann or any of the others you mention ever having had this instrument on loan. Tabea Zimmermann is well known for supporting contemporary instrument and bow makers. The text on the foundation website regarding the instrument reads

        GUSTAV MAHLER
        The “Mahler”, dated 1672, is the earliest of the ten original Stradivari violas that have survived the years. Due to its main characteristics, this instrument is attributed to Stradivari’s first period, in which the influence of Nicolò Amati (1596-1684) was still quite evident. Moreover, to corroborate this assumption, the original label exists, which the exact production date of the viola can be deduced. It reads: “Antonins Stradivarius Cremonensis/Facibet Anno 1672”. Interestingly, the label presents a peculiar spelling error in Stradivari’s name, which is written Antonins instead of Antonius. The mistake can be seen in several other instruments as well and is explained by the fact that the Cremonese master used to employ pre-printed labels to which he would merely add the last ciphers of the years, which were drawn by hand. For quite a long time this instrument was simply referred to as “viola, 1672” and it, in fact, remained nameless until Mr. Rolf Habisreutinger gave in its moniker on the occasion of its acquisition, which took place on 7 July 1960, Gustav Mahler’s 100th birthday.

        It is understandable that, faced with the task of building this type of instrument for the first time, Stradivari turned to examples previously made by his more knowledgeable colleagues. Charles Beare mentions Guarneri in this context: “its general proportions owe much to the contralto violas of Andrea Guarneri, one of which was made two years before this instrument…”, whereas the Hill Brothers point to Amati: “The viola 1672 shows in the arching, long corners, form of edge, sound-holes, design of head, and the pale golden varnish, just what we should expect from its date – a following of the Amati tradition.”

        This instrument is currently played by Antoine Tamestit

      • Not only is Yuri Bashmet not mentioned on the page about the ‘Mahler’, he isn’t mentioned on the foundation’s site at all. Google tells me: ‘Your search – site:stradivarius-stiftung.ch Bashmet – did not match any documents.’

        In the Strad article, Tamestit says ‘I usually refer to the ‘Mahler’ as ‘he’, because I think it’s a ‘he’, but with a lot of ‘she’ inside’. No mention of the Mahler name here.

        By the way, when it comes to attributions – phony or otherwise – wouldn’t it be a good idea to credit the Habisreutinger Foundation for the use of their photo at the top of this page?

      • Norman, you wrote that Tabea Zimmermann, Nobuko Imai, Yuri Bashmet, and Antoine Tamiset had used this viola on loan and “lazily” assumed it had something to do with Gustav Mahler.

        Contrary to your claim, the Stradivari Foundation (Habisreutinger) does not list any of these names. You have wisely removed this false statement from your article.

        The owner of this great viola, Rolf Habisreutinger, gave it the name “Gustav Mahler.” That was his choice. There is nothing “spurious” about it.

        Indeed, why not stick to the facts? The real story is interesting enough.

      • Dear Mr Lebrecht,

        To answer very clearly and again just with the facts:

        “The foundation that owns the viola lists the names I mentioned as those who had played it on loan.”

        – No that is not true and it is proven in the other replies underneath that quote the Foundations’ website.

        “You yourself refer to the viola as ‘he’ because the Mahler name is spuriously attached to it.”

        – No that is not true and it is proven in the other replies underneath that quote what I said about “he” and “she”. Please read the article.

        “Why not stick to the facts – since you are such a stickler – and call the viola by its deserved name, the ‘Habisreutinger’?”

        – I do agree with you on that one. Or it could be called the “Bennett” which was its name at the beginning of the 20th century.

        Thank you for correcting your facts and for not calling me a stickler please.

        Respectfully,

        Antoine TAMESTIT

  • The truth is that a good number of Strads and Del Gesu. have fanciful names, “The Messiah”, “La Pucelle” the “Violon du Diable”, “Il Canone”, the “Dolphin”, “Sunrise”, and so forth. Others like the Titian, the Da Vinci have names of things that they poetically represent, so the Mahler fits well within this.

    The greater problem are the instruments named for famous players who may have owned them, but didn’t really play them. Of the various ex-Joachim, and Vieuxtemps instruments in particular, few are likely to have been central to their fame as players…

  • Goodness me. Snobbery in classical music. I guess the story is even world class soloists (who presumably are smarten enough to know better) get sucked in by someone associating some big name with an instrument. Clearly having Mahler or Johnny Rotten associated doesn’t improve the instrument’s tone or playabilty. But if provenance can be proved it will lift the value. Just human nature at work;.not the greatest article but not the worst either. Not worth getting knickers in a knot..

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