This is a remarkable small viola by Giuseppe Rocca in a very pure state of preservation, and with a tonal quality that’s quite astounding for the size.

Giuseppe Rocca was apprenticed to Pressenda, and these two makers are regarded as the greatest violinmakers of the 19th century. This isn’t just because of the unrivalled beauty of their work, but also because of their understanding of tone.

Unusually, instruments by Rocca are valued as highly as those of his master, and stylistically Rocca and Pressenda are also very close.

Here we have a smaller sized viola by Rocca in near mint condition, and exhibiting very few signs of use. The work is exquisite. We can see in this instrument how the High French style of the late 19th century evolved from the work of the Turin makers – flat scroll carving with an inked chamfer, sharply delineated edgework rising at a controlled angle from the purfling, and purfling corners which veer towards the c-bouts.

There are no condition issues other than one minuscule crack in the bottom rib just below the saddle. There are very few dents or marks in the varnish, and the instrument has been exceptionally well cared for.

The varnish itself is a revelation. So much of what we expect from “original varnish” is the result of a couple of centuries of polishing, and it can be quite a shock to see a genuinely original varnish without wear or the effects of cleaning. This viola has something of the quality of the Messiah about it … can it really be that old? To those of us who have studied these instruments, it’s a rare treat to see something which looks more or less as it must have looked when it was first made.

Small violas are always contentious. Although this size (around 39cm) was the norm throughout all of Europe in the 19th century, today’s orthodoxy believes that a viola doesn’t sound like a viola if it’s under 40.5. This is of course nonsense, but we still have to make the case for the defense.

Fortunately the tide is on the turn now – partly because of a few high profile players who prefer smaller instruments, and partly because of the growing awareness of the physical consequences of a lifetime spent playing a big old brute of a viola!

This is really a collector’s instrument, but it’s still worth pointing out that it sounds great. It has a big woody tone with lightning response, very solistic in character with the sort of fizzy brilliance that really carries in a big hall. But even though it’s a bit of a rocket, the timbre is as refined and sophisticated as you would expect from this great maker.

All in all this viola has an unusually successful balance of articulacy and soul – a big sound wrapped up in a small body!

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