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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Have you ever played on a Strad?

January 18, 2008 at 6:41 PM

This 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!

From Corwin Slack
Posted on January 18, 2008 at 7:47 PM
I have played all the Strads in the Library of Congress and the Hellier Strad in the Smithsonian. I also played "an?" ex-Schneiderhan" Strad in Jacques Francais shop in NYC.

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.

From Ian S
Posted on January 18, 2008 at 8:06 PM
A family friend of mine knows Peter Prier and brought me there to play his Strads but they (and all the other race-car fiddles) were out on loan. I had a nice encounter with a Storioni, though.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on January 18, 2008 at 8:21 PM
I played and old German fake that was great! It was the kind with the complete counterfeit label, no "Made in..." at the bottom. It was like a fine Times Square Rolex :)

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?

From Mara Gerety
Posted on January 18, 2008 at 8:36 PM
Ian--a Storioni at Peter Prier's??? I think you met my immortal beloved! 1791, golden-brown, not a scratch on it? They practically had to yank it out of my hands last time I was there back in July. I WILL own that violin someday.

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.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on January 18, 2008 at 9:08 PM
I was asked by a member how I managed to play the violins in the LoC. It was a field trip organized by a violin maker I know. The LoC is a public facility and while the violins are kept locked up I believe that small groups can make appointments to see and play the instruments. I haven't the slightest idea who to contact but I doubt that it is all that difficult.
From Eitan Silkoff
Posted on January 18, 2008 at 9:11 PM
Ian, I have a Laurentius Storioni from Cremona. And I have also played on one Strad from the late 1600's, and also a highly prized Guarneri Del Gesu. One of the most amazing instruments.

It is a real treat.

From Raphael Klayman
Posted on January 19, 2008 at 3:16 AM
I've tried 3 authentic Strads - well at least 2 were. None of them gave me sleepless nights. Also a composite Strad. The top was by Strad; the rest by Gagliano. The latter actually sounded the best, as I recall. I've also played on a couple of del Gesus, Amatis, Guadagninis, etc. Each one had something. But so far, I've never tried any violin that was for me the nes plus ultra. Tonally - and workmanship wise - I feel lucky to have what I have.
From Ihnsouk Guim
Posted on January 19, 2008 at 4:14 AM
"I feel lucky to have what I have."

Rafael, That's a happy man who can say that. Glad to come upon that sentiment.

From Joshua Hong
Posted on January 19, 2008 at 5:46 AM
That Cincinnati Inquirer story makes me laugh and barf at the same time.
From Ben Clapton
Posted on January 19, 2008 at 7:14 AM
I've got a picture (which I have previously posted in my blog, I believe) of me playing on a Strad when I was quite young... would've been my second year of playing, when I was 8 or 9.

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.

From Jonathan Frohnen
Posted on January 19, 2008 at 10:22 PM
I'm all thumbs
From Ray Randall
Posted on January 20, 2008 at 12:19 AM
Played and tried to buy the "Soames Strad) made in 1884 back in 1972. It was owned by a Wilton, Ct. Science teacher whose Mother was a concert violinist. It had R. Wurlitzer and Beare papers. We had a new house and couldn't afford it. Oh yes, he wanted $25,00. for it.
Every night by wife kickes me hard in rememberence of that.
From Eric John-FĂ©lix Livingston
Posted on January 20, 2008 at 8:21 PM
The "Betts" Stradivari in the Library of Congress is the real cream of that collection. It is a benchmark of art unto itself, all things being equal (setting aside playability, timbre, and other subjective qualities). However, the "Castelbarco" is not much to write home about in my opinion; the "Ward" as well could be easily forgotten.

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.


From Raphael Klayman
Posted on January 21, 2008 at 3:40 AM
Interesting...I had a somewhat different experience at the Library of Congress back in 1989. I made an appointmnet to view the instruments. The curator told me that I'd only be allowed to try the Brookings Amati and the Kreisler del Gesu. I remember being allowed to hold the Betts Strad in my hands, but not to play on it. He admitted that it was silly, but those were the rules at the time, because each bqueathal came with different instructions. I guess it's different now.

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!

From Raphael Klayman
Posted on January 21, 2008 at 4:08 AM
A technical site request: I just looked over what I wrote, and found a couple of spelling mistakes that I can't correct. It would be great if we could go back and edit here, the same way we can on the regular discussion section.
From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on January 21, 2008 at 4:13 AM
I'd like to second Raphael's request. :) A few times I've left spelling errors and such in blog comments, or even accidentally commented on the wrong blog. An edit option would be great.

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. ;)

From Corwin Slack
Posted on January 21, 2008 at 4:18 AM
I can't claim big expertise but I think all the Strads in the LoC were very fine. I would trade anything I own for any Strad they own. The Betts was indeed glorious but the big surprise was the Tuscan viola. It is an alto of astonishing wondrous tone. It was the most memorable part of the visit.
From Tom and Trudy Egan
Posted on January 21, 2008 at 6:14 AM
Well Ive played oh maby 30+ Strads and about 10 Del Gesus over the years.Ive heard many more in concert. And Ive also had several apart for major restorations.Ive heard BAD sounding Strads that people THink sound great because they are Strads. Ive heard Scarappelas that knock the socks off many Strads but are discounted because they are not STRADS, sames goes for many contemporary violins.let's do the math Strad 4,000,000.00$ Great contemperory violn 20,000.00$ lets see where my money goes I Know of an ex concert master of a major Phil who's chair was endowed with a Strad. He played a violin HE MADE!! Every one thought it was a STRAD HA HA HA Sound is a very interesting concept that ultimatly is very elusive
From Raphael Klayman
Posted on January 21, 2008 at 1:17 PM
Of course it would be great to own a genuine Strad or del Gesu with a sound worthy of its reputation. But let's say someone of average means is just given a Strad - nice fantasy, right? But here comes some sobering reality: how do you afford the insurance, year after year?
From Corwin Slack
Posted on January 21, 2008 at 7:35 PM
Loan it to the Smithsonian. They pay the insurance you own the violin. Access is a problem but one day if it appreciates you get the full appreciation and the US Treasury pays the insurance.
From Raphael Klayman
Posted on January 21, 2008 at 9:06 PM
Well, I'd probably do one of two things if someone bequeathed me a Strad or del Gesu any time soon. (Like that'll happen! But anyway...)

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!

From Chris Dolan
Posted on January 21, 2008 at 11:28 PM
I have yet to even hear ONE of these instruments in person, so my first goal is to actually be in the same room with a Strad (or del Gesu)! After that I'll consider how I may go about realizing my next goal, that being to have the opportunity to actually play a Strad (or a del Gesu).

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.

From Todd Carlsen
Posted on January 22, 2008 at 3:59 AM
I have heard them in concert -- I like -- and have stood as close as maybe ten feet. Play one? I think I would be taken to the ground by security.

I hope that puts this discussion in perspective.

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