Written by The Weekend Vote
Published: February 27, 2015 at 4:17 PM [UTC]
I certainly feel for violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, who had to give the 1711 Strad he was renting back to the German bank that owned it this week, right before his concert series with the New York Philharmonic. The bank is trying to sell the instrument and Zimmermann had the first option to buy, but by all accounts they priced it some million dollars higher than its already-sky-high valuation that was around $5 million.
Young violin soloists face no small dilemma, when it comes to procuring a fine instrument. Should they borrow (or rent) the very finest instrument possible, knowing that it can be withdrawn at any moment from a sponsor, or that they might be asked to fork over millions of dollars to buy it at some undefined point in the future? Or should a soloist pass up on the chance to play an instrument like that, and instead invest their money and spirit in finding a modern violin that will live up to expectations and carry a much more reasonable price tag?
The simple answer is "get a modern, they're just as good." It's too simple of an answer, though. I've spoken to far too many experienced violinists to believe that there's nothing particularly special about the Strads and del Gesús -- to play one during the crucial beginning of one's career is to have an instrument that will inform your playing and sense of aesthetic for a lifetime. It's a special experience that just might be worth the possible pain of a bad break-up. Plus, you may wind up with a kind sponsor who just lets you use it for your entire playing career.
Or not! It gets very, very ugly, and soloists describe losing their beloved instrument like "losing an arm," one becomes so attached. Certainly, it is like losing your voice.
How would you advise the most promising young soloists today to handle the instrument dilemma?
You might also like:
play a strad, and have a copy of the instrument built.
[Edit added] Since I posted the above I've seen the previous comment. It's a good and valid point, and I am sure it is being done, but for most of us "first catch your Strad" comes to mind!
1. A copy, however well made, will not sound like the original! It's not like copying someone's recipe for chocolate chip cookies.
2. I kind of wonder, can you really find "the one" modern instrument that could work for you as your primary instrument, if you are always practicing and playing concerts on another instrument (ie. the Strad you have on loan)?
I'm a great believer in cutting one's coat to fit one's cloth; buying a house, a car, a piece of professional equipment, or whatever beyond one's means is asking for trouble, tragedy, or, at the very least, stress.
One artist has to give his instrument back b/c he can't/won't buy it. Earlier, another violinist had hers removed because, if I remember correctly, she became pregnant, and the lender decided she was insufficiently committed to her career. There are enough hostages to fortune in our world without adding the possession of something you cannot truly afford. (Besides, there are some STUNNINGLY wonderful 'modern' instruments in the world.)
I've long been interested as a player in the wide variety of differences in sound and playability of violins, and intently endeavored to train my senses to discern subtle differences as I strove to upgrade my tools through a succession of purchases.
Over the years, I've gratefully had the opportunity to have test-played on the order of perhaps 600 violins (mostly mid- to higher-level) in violin shops in the U.S. and around the world, and have had the privilege to play a half dozen Strad/delGesu/Amati instruments. Of the latter, I would never want a third of those, a third were fine, and a third were extremely gorgeous under the ear.
The couple of real standouts have remained mentally embedded tonal references for all subsequent comparisons, and I have never yet encountered a new instrument that fully matched such complete beauty. I am well aware of the much-publicized and controversial tests in which a few modern instruments have been perceived by some to be on par with a selection from leading old makers.
Based on my findings, it seems highly advantageous for promising players to use the finest instruments available, if only for a short while, be it hours, days or years. This will provide great inspiration during that period, and also will provide a valuable reference point, as they should concurrently seek out a personally affordable instrument for their own purchase, be it old or new. And the choice is definitely not just Strad or modern, there have been a couple hundred years of production by others in between!
I wholeheartedly agree with Laurie's comment that "A copy, however well made, will not sound like the original!" I've heard or read several luthiers comment that they might never live long enough to hear their products at their ultimate best. In the book The Violin-makers of the Guarneri Family by Hill, an interesting comparison of how long it took to "season the tone of the most famous makers' instruments" is presented. This ranged from 10 to 80 years for makers listed, with Strad 30-60 years and del Gesu 40-80 years.
Even if I had a fine old Strad on loan, I would definitely want to own the best instrument I could afford in order to have a ready solution for just the situation Zimmermann experienced.
a dear fan of violinist.com :)
A generation or two ago you could buy an old Italian for about the price of a VW. Not exactly cheap, but a young pro with a good job could swing it. As these instruments became investment vehicles for hedge funds and Russian oligarchs it's no longer practical for individual musicians to own them. Fine instruments have been left on trains and in cabs, outside front doors, have taken falls down stairs and been backed over by cars. Does any young musician want to be known as "the kid who ruined the del Gesu"?
As a pilot and airplane owner as well as an adult student of the violin, the parallels are apparent to me.
Flying is a passion, as is music and the violin. It is all too easy to let one's emotions hold sway and over power one's sense of logic and reason. Getting emotionally attached to someone else's possession can lead to decisions with undesirable consequences.
It is a shame that the old instruments have become out of reach of the talented players who can bring the most out of those wonderful instruments.
Perhaps instead of having these instruments on indefinite loan, they should be loaned out for definite periods of time then passed on to another player. That way the music loving public can still hear these great instruments as they were meant to be heard and hopefully, the players won't become too emotionally attached to an instrument they can never afford to own out right.
Of course, we are discussing music, which is all about emotion.
Indeed, I bet some soloists own a Strad (a lesser one of his instruments) but then play on the instrument of choice. Noone said you have to actually play on it.
So who decides what violin sounds better than all others? The player, the critics, the violin community at large, the audience? Well, all of the above most likely. Definitions have changed, and will probably change again. One must remember that Strads and del Gesus were at one time MODERN instruments, albeit game changers.
Today we have Zigs, Burgess', Alfs, Curtains, etc. All marvelous instrument makers to be sure. As "good" as Strads? No empirical test has really proven otherwise. To say that it can't be a magnificent instrument just because it's not 300 years old made by a dead guy from Cremona, Italy, I can only see as an absurdity. Perhaps it really just comes down to a status symbol. A badge of honor. There are only so many to go around. If you perform on one, you're part of an exclusive club that only the best players get to belong to. Maybe that's the real mystique. I'm not suggesting that these old and venerable instruments are not great fiddles. However, I am suggesting that their superiority over anything else, ever, is an artificial construction that we really must get over.
Hilde Frang also plays a Vuillaume.
How about this performance :
BTW the violist plays a modern.
Patricia Kopatchinskaja plays a Pressenda.
I heard her perform the Mendelssohn. Great sound.
Maybe these instruments do not have the same appeal to the general public
as a Strad or DG but in the end of the day are people staying away from
Hilary Hahn's concerts because she doesn't play a Strad?
The concert going public might be more aware today
of the fact that there are other great instruments.
Domenico Nordio plays on Ansaldo Poggi:
Correct me if I am wrong but to my knowledge Josef Hassid performed on Vuillaume at this recording:
Arnold Steinhardt on this recording plays Zygmunowicz:
Svetlin Roussev on Gregg Alf:
And then he plays on Strad together with Tedi Papavrami on his Bayon:
Helena Baillie plays on Collin Galahue's violin:
Maybe not. We frequently hear about soloists who need quite a long time (like a year or more) to learn to get the best out of their Strad, but it's rare to hear of a soloist investing that kind of effort in a modern.
The reason why some people think Strad sounds better is because they know they are listening to a multi million dollar instrument in advance, thus produces a placebo effect which makes them to believe the Strad must sound good.
It's an interesting discussion though and I have one thing to add. These old italiens were famous for a reason, I read that craftsmen were working very hard just to get by so it wasn't the name that got them so famous. All the masters of the past would have to be complete muppets for all playing on the famous instruments once they get the money. You might say that the name draws the croud, it means something obviously but I think it's just not true.
I understand that's less personal than the violin, because at least you can count on having another Steinway wherever you go. But with the violin, lots of things can happen that might prevent you from performing on your "main" instrument on a given evening, and then what?
From perusing this thread, it strikes me that players with finer instruments would greatly serve the upcoming generation by letting those students known to be very careful and respectful of the tools of the trade to have a few minutes of fully-supervised trial just to help train younger ears and inform learning minds.
Anecdotally, I once had a shop owner pass me a Strad without informing me of that in advance, but this was only after I had been observed handling and playing several other finer instruments there with the utmost care and respect. I immediately noticed and commented on the superior tonal quality, and only then was I told what I was playing. The preceding trials were various 18th and 19th century works by better makers, no modern ones at that time.
And what is "modern"? By a living maker? Made in the last 25 or 50 years? From the 20th and 21st century? I guess I tend to think of it perhaps as roughly post-WWII, but even that now covers a lot of years, though a small fraction of the total years of violin manufacture. In addition to the Strad vs. modern choice, there's a very interesting and lengthy post-Strad but pre-modern time range of violins from which to choose.
This says to me that the top 100 soloists and concertmasters in the world can seek these instruments. Everyone else should take advantage of having a living luthier build and tune an instrument to match their personal "voice". Then if the happen to fall into a really nice old instrument then great, but in the meantime they can at least have an instrument which matches them. Is this a bad line of reasoning?
As to whether the piano or the violin is harder to play, that's one of those pointless debates. However, in terms of intonation, aren't we constantly regaled with tales about how this or that great player would pick up a violin that's terribly out of tune and play perfectly in tune thereupon? It must be true to at least a limited extent because a violin can hardly hold perfectly in tune over the course of a whole 25-minute concerto.
I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard that old saw about learning a violin was a Strad only after playing it and finding its tone wonderful. The same people will insist these instruments are hard to play and it takes great skill or a lot of time working with them to realize their nuance. Have you also been at a wine tasting where you were surrounded by "wine snobs," none of whom could detect the cork taint what was obvious to you? That is another true chestnut.
This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Thomastik-Infeld's Dynamo Strings
Violinist.com Summer Music Programs Directory
ARIA International Summer Academy
Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine