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From Rittenhouse Square to the Salome Chamber Orchestra: Are rare instruments starting to play us?

images“A Stradivari in Philadelphia” was the name of a recent concert on Rittenhouse Square, and, in my experience, the first time the instrument took top billing over the performer and repertoire. Some composer names were found in the fine print (no mention of what pieces) and the violinist was one Matteo Fedeli.

Strads are hardly news in Philadelphia.  Why would anybody suggest otherwise? My theory: The veneration of rare instruments has escalated to a new level. Price records keep getting broken, the current one being $3.6 million paid for the Molitor Strad that is thought to have once been owned by Napoleon Bonaparte. We’ve probably seen the last generation of violinists who can actually own such instruments with their own financial resources – such as Gil Shaham and Maxim Vengerov, now in their mid-40s.

Many string players fear they can’t have a proper career without some rare instrument, preferably one of the 650 surviving Strads, particularly from the violin-maker’s so-called golden period from 1700 to 1725. But only foundations, museums and institutions can afford to own them now – and, happily, most of those organizations seem to be pretty intelligent about which players play them on loan. But they’re still on loan. If word gets out that you left the instrument unguarded or in an unsafe place … kiss the Strad goodbye.

A few of the top names might be seen as quietly boycotting this rat race: Hilary Hahn has said she’s perfectly happy with her Vuillaume, and Christian Tetzlaff, who once had a Strad, now plays a modern instrument made by Stefan-Peter Greiner. The Tokyo Quartet is surrendering its four “Paganini Strads” (a supposedly matched set once owned by Niccolò Paganini) after it plays its last concert this summer, and you don’t see them rending their garments.

Tokyo Quartet cellist Clive Greensmith has lived on both sides – scrounging for a good instrument and living with one of the Paganini Strads – and he takes a measured view. He’s grateful for years with the fine cello, of course, but also states that the instrument “is a tool.”

It’s not always a cooperative one. Though Strads have a mystique of allowing violinists to realize their ideas with an ease and beauty that’s less possible with other instruments, they also have a way of telling their players what to do.

Compare, for example, the pre-Strad Tokyo Quartet recording of Beethoven’s Op. 131 on RCA. During one of the fast movements, there’s a moment where the players are directed to bow on or close to the instrument’s bridge; in the earlier Tokyo recording, it’s a hugely witty, scintillating effect. Something similar happens on the quartet’s later rendition on Harmonia Mundi – though this time, violinist Martin Beaver (who didn’t play on the early recording, just for the record) had to seriously work at it. “Those instruments don’t want to sound ugly,’ he said. “It’s hard to get a real ponticello.”

At the May 4th Salome Chamber Orchestra concert at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the instruments had a way of dictating repertoire as well as sound. The Salome group is one of those super-chamber orchestras that exists part time with the participation of soloists such as violist David Aaron Carpenter, violinist Philippe Quint and others. On this occasion, several members played on instruments from the museum’s Sau-Wing Lam Collection. As much as I admire Carpenter and Quint, these rare instruments need great music as well as great players.

The concert’s climax was Ludwig Maurer’s pleasant but completely inconsequential Concertante for 4 Violins in A minor, Op. 55, which was clearly exhumed to show off four golden-age Strads playing simultaneously. And yes, they sounded wonderful. But that sound was used in a context that was nearly meaningless. So was much of the other repertoire in the concert. In all fairness, the whole atmosphere of the program was on the lighter side, bordering on café music, rightly inspiring a kind of highly-physical performing style that comes with it.

But this is not what we need.

The state of classical music is, in many ways, a battle against encroaching uniformity. And much of that uniformity is about sounding pretty – the sort of prettiness that Michael Tilson Thomas used to call “the deluxe non-specific.” Singers want to sound more like Kiri Te Kanawa than Maria Callas. And God help anybody who sounds like Lotte Lenya – a singer who needed only to exhale in order to be devastating.

Even though instrumentalists don’t have certain resources to distinguish one from another (such as the use of words), I’m still disturbed that Itzhak Perlman has been quoted as hearing a violin performance on the radio and guessing as to whether or not it’s him.  He should know his playing when he hears it. And when great musicians sound so similar, the experience of classical music takes on another layer of redundancy.

This is not to disparage Strads. One can often spot one with the naked ear. Within a few days of each other, I heard Hahn play the Korngold Violin Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the young, up-and-coming violinist Kristin Lee play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in an Astral Artists concert, also in Philadelphia. Hahn conveyed all of Korngold’s necessary voluptuousness not just with her sound but with her considerable musical willpower (which no doubt comes from her brain). However, in the final movement that put her through Heifetzian paces, her tone grew pale under pressure.

Lee’s Tchaikovsky, in contrast, was amazing for how she maintained a beautiful tone – and an eloquent, poetic manifestation of beauty – even when under the most technical pressure. The quality of her instrument surely played a role in this. But I had no idea what sort of violin she played until I checked a few minutes ago. And it was a Strad.

This could easily open up a debate that not all repertoire is for Strads (a position Tetzlaff has taken) and not all musicians are temperamentally suited to Strads. The instruments most certainly have their place, but it’s not an all-encompassing one. And in any case, I’ve always loved violinists more for their minds than their fingers. Yes, I’m one of those people who collects late-period Joseph Szigeti and Albert Spalding recordings – though I can’t say that I seek them out everyday (or anything close to it).



  1. It’s increasingly obvious – with every post from America – that the culture that should be the vanguard of human creativity is searching in the small print of the cultural record for something to get excited about. Entropy has set in – the des Esseintes syndrome. Mallarme put it thus:

    Hyperbole! de ma mémoire
    Triomphalement ne sais-tu
    Te lever, aujourd’hui grimoire
    Dans un livre de fer vêtu…

    [grimoire book of spells with which to enchant (of a wizard)]

    Rilke claimed that a work of art should spring from necessity. But an unbridled taste for the new in both composition and performance has, I suggest, derailed musicians into the fabrication of simulacra of artistic performance and creation: it’s the logical outcome of post-modernism, wherein an opera on a slight theme – as we saw recently – is accorded the accolade of a tragic atmosphere befitting Madame Bovary. The compass no longer works as it should: the compass of the human soul that is. There’s been a catastrophic divorce from emotion and sincerity in favour of the merely plausible. It’s the job of the far-seeing – maybe – to try and counter this, but how? By somehow reacting – maybe – against a commercialized culture of the age? But that will be impossible, I guess, so long as we see life as a march into a godless, scientific, impossible future along the lines of 1984. These ideas of mine are very inchoate as of now but I thought I should record them. Because if you want to be creative these days, the environment in which we are constrained to operate is obviously a deep concern.

    I dream of a day when to Mallarme’s rhetorical question someone somewhere can answer, ‘yes!’

  2. Jake M. says:

    Strads are not the end all be all instrument for many top violinists. Many consider the violins of Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesu” (with Pietro Guarneri not far behind) as being superior to Strads. Arthur Grumiaux, Jascha Heifetz, Leonid Kogan, Kyung Wha Chung, Michael Rabin, Joseph Silverstein, Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Midori Goto, Rachel Barton Pine, Henryk Szeryng, Sarah Chang and Leila Josefowicz. all played or play Guarneri del Gesu violins.

    As François-Joseph Fétis wrote in his book, Antoine Stradivari, luthier célèbre (Paris, 1856), “I remember that, in my youth, while the proce of a fine Stradivarius was [100 GBP], that of the best Joseph Guarnerius did not exceed [48 GBP]; but, latterly, their qualities of grand sonority have been recognized, which have caused them to be sought after, and have advanced the price of choice violins to [240 GBP]. Del Gesus fetched a higher price than Strads since Fétis’ day until our time. The Lady Blunt Strad sold for $15.9 million in 2011, while the asking price for the Vieuxtemps Guarneri was $18 million in 2010 (it was later purchased for an undisclosed sum rumored to be higher than the previous record for the Lady Blunt Strad). Also, only about 200 Guarneri have been preserved to our day, while the number of Strads is around 600.

    However, the instruments of great luthiers – like those who play upon them – have a distinct personality of their own. One musician can love playing on a particular instrument, while another may not be particularly thrilled to do so. Admittedly, this is partially due to a player’s relationship with his/her instrument, which develops over time. Each instrument, regardless of who made it, has strong and weak spots on a given string, tessitura or even single notes. A great musician will quickly discover them and work on adapting his/her playing to ameliorate, or even “fix” such weak spots through the use of vibrato, bow pressure and speed. The violin, for its part, seems to adapt its vibrations to the playing style of a given violinist and resonate more magnificently over time as the player and instrument develop together.

    I would correct the author regarding the fact that “One can often spot one with the naked ear.” What the author describes is the tone produced by two different violinists who happen to play violins by the same maker. I have witnessed quite a few “blind listening” tests, where different violinists alternated between Strads, Guarneris and other, often modern, violins behind a curtain. Violinists and luthiers with highly trained ears listening to the tests have overwhelmingly guessed wrong when asked to identify the two master luthiers and modern violins by various makers.Most have also preferred the sound of del Gesus to that of Strads.

    Furthermore, I don’t think the author needs to be ill at ease about the reported Perlman quote. It is possible to identify human voices through listening to them. This has much to do with the physical characteristics and technique of the singer who produces the sound with his/her body, which I would argue are far more discernible than that of other instruments. I am a trained string player and would have a hard time identifying myself if someone put on a recording of my playing. I have found the same to be the case with other string players whom I know very well from stage performances and recordings. Making a distinction between players who are in the A league of performing is even more difficult, since their playing is mostly technically perfect, so unless they have made a mistake in a particular spot that I can remember, identifying players is very difficult – unless they have an extremely mannered style of playing.

    I would say that it is possible to distinguish whether a string player was taught along the lines of the French, German or Russo-American styles, because there is a difference in tone production ideals between these. The Russo-Americans tend to grind into their instruments and use lots of vibrato, which carries far in a big concert hall, but produces a rather gritty and hysterical tone quality. The French school has the lightest touch, which allows the natural sound of the instrument to dominate through more refined dynamics and elegance of tone production, whereas the German school is somewhere in between, while producing a more angular and rhythmically distinct tone with more vibrato differentiation than the French and Russo-Americans. Intelligent players, however, are able to adapt their tone based on the repertoire they’re playing, and it must be said that the ubiquity of recordings does tend to homogenize playing styles to a degree, just as TV has all but eliminated regional accents. Yet again, much of this “homogenization” is of a technical nature, e.g., where and when to use slides and how much and when to use vibrato. Also, being “homogenous” is not such a bad thing if you’re going to play in an orchestra or ensemble for most of your professional life, since a very distinct tone would upset the character of the section. Great soloists do have an “own” tone production style, but /I would argue that this is best heard live in a concert hall rather than through recordings. Unless you have the top-of-the-line Marantz surround sound stereo system, sound will get distorted depending on what kind of stereo you are listening to or which headphones you use.

    Conservatories and music schools across the world are producing string players who have a far better standard on average than 50 years ago, and hence more performers who could be classed in the A league. Unfortunately, not all those who are deserving make it into that league. I don’t see the situation of performance and sound quality as being a particularly serious issue threatening music in our day. The situation of funding for orchestras, youth alienation from classical music and the resulting disappearance of jobs for classically trained musicians is a far more serious dilemma.

  3. There is the Heifetz story of the lady gushing over the beautiful sounding Strad and he looking over at the
    violin in its case then turning to the lady and says “funny I don’t hear anything ” . If one is correct
    the violin of choice was always the Guarneri .

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