January 18, 2008 at 6:41 PMThis week I was amused by a Cincinnati Enquirer story in which the reporter (and editor) didn't catch that if a violin is valued at $3,000, it ain't a Stradivarius.
Here's another basic test: if you found it in your Grandma's attic, it's a FAKE Stradivarius. If you bought it for $5 million from J and A Beare, it's probably real. If someone had to take it from a glass case from a museum, and allowed you to play it only under the gaze of a stern guardsman, it's probably a real Strad. If you are studying violin at a major conservatory or university and the head of the string department comes to you and says, "We are lending you the school's Strad for a year, but one little nick and YOU DIE," it's probably real. If Joshua Bell or Gil Shaham hands you his fiddle and says, "Would you like to take it for a spin?" then you've been awarded a fine opportunity indeed.
The largely unrivalled sound of Stradivari's violins has inspired both poetry and scientific research. (And recently, a good book.) The best ones go by the names of their most famous owners or by other names: the Viotti, the Soil, the Joachim; Gibson-ex-Huberman. Many feel that the ghosts of previous players' music resides within each instrument. (Here's a really fun list of who plays what.)
Though every Strad has incredible antique value and has a certain quality of sound, not all are created equal. About 15 years ago I did have the opportunity to play a Strad, which was at a luthier friend's shop for some restoration. It was one of the lesser Strads, but I still understood it to be something apart from my own very mediocre instrument at the time. In fact I didn't know what to make of it, so rich was the sound. My main thought was: if I played regularly on an instrument like this, I think I'd know perfect pitch; I could hear the unique quality of each note in the tone of this fiddle.
The fake ones are absolutely ubiquitous; you can assume a that nearly any fiddle with a Stradivari label is a fake. This is the case with the German factory violin I played for my childhood and young adulthood. It had been in the family for some time; it came on the boat from Germany with my grandmother's parents. They died shortly after reaching America -- the violin remained with my grandmother, an orphan at age three. I've played so much on it; I'm guessing more than anyone did before. It has its musical limitations, but I've coaxed a nice voice out of it, over the years. Now that I have an old Italian violin, my German "fake Strad" is my friend in the classroom, not to mention my link to the past.
So we have a two-part poll this week: Have you ever played on a REAL Strad? Have you ever played on a FAKE Strad? Tell us about it!
If you ever get a chance to play a real STRAD, don't be shy. DO it, for sure!
The Hellier was poorly setup and frankly (as a result) it didn't sound that good to my ears. The LoC instruments were fabulous. All of this happened long enough ago and at the beginning of my current phase of training that i would love to have the experience again to refresh my ears in light of what I have learned in the meantime.
Regarding Strads in the attic, I've always wondered something. Out of around 1000 made, only half are accounted for. Are the rest just KIA? Couldn't some be MIA, unrecognizable for one reason or another, or ...just in an attic? When was the last time a real one did just turn up?
On that same visit I played the Firebird Strad for a bit, and I think it was...a touch irritated that I wasn't Salvatore Accardo.
It is a real treat.
Rafael, That's a happy man who can say that. Glad to come upon that sentiment.
My first full size violin was a chinese copy of a strad. While it didn't claim to be a strad, it was very good for what it was. I eventually ended up selling it for near what it was worth when I bought it from new, some 10 years before. I think whoever bought it has got a really good violin, and I hope they're enjoying it.
These instruments are all cared for my Rene Morel, and have his standard "big voice" set up. For the Stradivaris to be good players' instruments, all hint that they would need some regular playing and break-in time. Kreiser's del Gesu on the other hand is a dynamo that is ready from the word go.
The real gem so easily overlooked in the Library of Congress is the "Brookings" Amati. It's voice has a stunning depth and brilliance that needs neither coaxing nor taming under the bow.
Anyway, I still have some vivid memories. The Brookings Amati indeed had great depth and fullness - especially on the G, and to a lesser extent on the D. (BTW, I think it was Albert Mogli who adjusted them at the time.) I recall it being lighter and less impressive on the upper strings. Even on the beautiful G, there were limits to its core, if I really dug in.
The Kreisler del Gesu was in some ways the opposite. The E was amazing - maybe the best E I've ever tried, combining great power and brilliance with excellent quality and sparkle. The A was similar, but not quite on the E's level. The D was rather hard and unresponsive. By the time I reached the G, it was really hard, needing something of an accent or bite on each bow stroke. But there seemed no limits to its core (on any of its strings.) I shared my reactions with the curator. He said "you're doing very well. Isaac Stern was here recently, and he couldn't play on it at all!" But his favorite was the Amati. While I played on the violins, he did paper work. But whenever I played on the Amati's G, he stopped what he was doing and looked up in wonder.
I alos tried a couple of bows. A Tourte did not do it for me. It was too light and soft. But I loved Kreisler's own Hill, which he donated along with the del Gesu. Anyway, I had fun!
Back to topic though . . . *sigh* . . . no, I've never touched a Strad. I'd sure love to someday though. You know, owning one would be nice too.
Hah, fat chance. ;)
1. If I wasn't crazy about it I'd just sell it.
2. If I did feel that it was pretty much the violin of my dreams, I'd deed it to some institution that might be interested, such as the Smithsonian, or a school, or an orchestra. This is how deeding works, as someone explained it to me. It's a special kind of donation. As soon as I deed it, the beneficiary is the owner. However, I get to hold on to it for the rest of my life, and they pay the insurance. No acess problem. In addition, they are supposed to give some further compensation. So it's like a very partial sale, and a partial donation. The following was told to me in private, so I won't mention names. I understand that a very prominant violinist deeded his great instrument to the school that he teaches at. His extra compensation was a raise in salary.
Anyway, I'll cross that very golden-gated bridge should I ever come upon it!
But, to answer Laurie's question, the first violin I played was a pretty good Strad imitation. It was a German-made instrument and not all that old. The instrument I now play is much better, older and more along the lines of a del Gesu, although not a strict copy or imitation of a del Gesu. The Strad copy seemed to have a more complex tone (with more complex overtones), but very obvious limitations as well. The violin I now play has a less complex voice, but also more latitude. It seems to me that as a general rule Strad violins are very rich in overtones, and do not generally sacrifice much in terms of power or projection. Having said this, however, I realize that such a statement is very subjective and that my own experience is sorely lacking, therefore please do not tear me apart for having just said what I did. These are simply my most basic of observations.
I hope that puts this discussion in perspective.
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