Ray Chen comparison of Old versus New Violin

April 13, 2019, 3:02 AM · Ray Chen was at the Museum of Violin in Cremona and though this wasn’t the intent it became a comparison of a beautiful 1734 Guarneri de Gesu and his own contemporary instrument made by Kurt Widenhouse. Both sounded amazing! From the recording, the contemporary seemed to have better projection.

https://youtu.be/g4yA1NEw23M

Replies (28)

April 13, 2019, 3:17 AM · Why isn't the bow identified? that's a big part of the equation.
April 13, 2019, 5:49 AM · the modern violin sounds plainer, and the Del Gesus is richer in tone, just what I would expect.
April 13, 2019, 6:26 AM · I did not expect the difference but I am agreeing with Lyndon.
The contemporary has a beautiful sound, each tone seems to be very clear. But the del Gesu produces a rich “Klangteppich” (whatever the English expression might be).
April 13, 2019, 6:32 AM · I loved both there both fine violins with fantastic sound. I think modern violins can sound fantastic and this one is a great one. My favorite quote my Luthier tells me every time is “Stradivarius made new violins”. And I would rather have the widenhouse because there isn’t hundreds of years of history.. being added to the price. Interesting idea for comparison though
April 13, 2019, 8:38 AM · I prefer the modern violin.
Edited: April 13, 2019, 9:09 AM · I didn't listen. I don't think there's any hope for comparing the sounds of two fine violins using a YouTube video. Mr. Chen's opinion would matter to me, but only if the comparison could be made entirely blind. Hard to do because they will feel different and he knows his own violin well. You'd have to have them played by a third party.
April 13, 2019, 9:51 AM · The modern violin sounded bland, and didn't seem to project significantly more.

The thing that struck me (though not surprising) was the quality of vibrato. When I compared the slow theme of the Brahms at about 2" vs 3", I thought the vibrato was clearer, with more color change. Less work on the part of the player for a more beautiful sound.

Projection is like the 0-60 speed for a car: is that really the most important thing in a car? If searching for a violin and one is significantly less loud, then fine, eliminate it. But always choosing the one that is marginally brighter or a teenier bit louder is misguided--there are many other factors besides sheer volume.

April 13, 2019, 10:22 AM · Projection isn't about volume. Most violins can put out the same dbs.
Violins that project very well will necessarily sound brighter (plainer) because the most important aspect of projection in a hall is very strong overtones.
April 13, 2019, 10:52 AM · The modern violin is certainly a very powerful instrument, but it looked as if he had to work twice as hard to get that sound from it. The Del Gesu has much more colours and richness, a beautiul sound.
April 13, 2019, 11:31 AM · All this goes against the typical theory that priceless antiques are super hard to play, that you have to "get to know them" and learn how to "coax sound out of them" and so forth.
April 13, 2019, 12:10 PM · It's always easier to judge projection when playing a solo piece with orchestra, rather than alone. While playing alone in a hall can give some clues about projection, only a real test with other instruments will tell how the violin cuts through the sound.

Nonetheless, it was an interesting video. It seemed like Ray was working less hard and getting a richer sound from the del Gesu. But, as Paul pointed out, it's hard to get too much detail from a Youtube video -- only clues.

April 14, 2019, 2:36 AM · A few hints/observations:

1) Ray didn't state what "more" has to be done when playing modern violin. It sounded that he's trying to say you need to coax the sound more on the modern.

2) High notes on the Del Gesu sounded significantly clearer. Notes also pop better too.

3) If anything, both violin sounded remarkably close in quality because it's the player that made the sound.

4) I heard him live on both his Strad and his modern at the same venue albeit different repertoire. The differences were much more apparent when hearing him live. In my honest opinion that a) there's no comparison and b) Ray is a fine violinist.

April 15, 2019, 6:06 AM · Paul wrote: " All this goes against the typical theory that priceless antiques are super hard to play, that you have to "get to know them" and learn how to "coax sound out of them" and so forth."
I wonder if that statement originated from old, very expensive - but second-rate - violins where you had to play it but also had to figure out a way to make it work! :)
April 15, 2019, 8:31 AM · I think whether or not you have to learn to adapt to an instrument has a lot to do with whether or not that instrument naturally matches the way that you play. A lot of soloists who get loaned big-ticket antiques don't have a choice in which said item they receive; it might not have been the ideal violin for them.

Also, if you're not used to playing a high-end violin, learning the possibilities takes time. You have to get used to the fact that you have a much-expanded palette, as well as a number of new tricks that you might not have been aware of before.

April 15, 2019, 1:39 PM · I love how all these experts think they can tell the difference based on a youtube video.

1) You're getting a tiny fraction of the sound
2) Your responses are undoubtedly influenced by knowing which violin is which. Ears are not objective -- they are connected to our brains, so everything they report to us is a mixture of what the ear is physically hearing and what the brain is adding to that. In other words, what you hear is heavily influenced by what you KNOW.
3) Ray Chen's playing is undoubtedly influenced by knowing which violin he's playing on.

Basically this youtube video is lovely but it's not INFORMATION.

Information would be a double-blind study like this one:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHXOPjI9l0I

April 15, 2019, 2:05 PM · Another person that only listens to music blindfolded, ridiculous!!
April 15, 2019, 5:28 PM · Who only listens to music blindfolded?
Once in a while, various methods of separating seeing from hearing can be valuable, since without taking deliberate steps to do so, seeing and hearing can cross over in mysterious and confounding ways. ;-)
April 15, 2019, 6:05 PM · To me from a listener perspective the differences are akin to that expected from a same maker's instruments or even from different strings, in other words subtle. No two instruments ever sound the same, and these are no exception. Not much of a surprise there. Is one better than the other? A matter of taste and player.
April 15, 2019, 9:38 PM · on my expensive stereo, that difference between the two violin is pretty big, night and day, totally different kind of sound, the Guarnerius sounds better but I can see how someone might prefer the plainer tone of the modern, just not my taste.
April 15, 2019, 10:21 PM · Um, he looked like he was having A LOT more fun playing the del gesu ;)
April 15, 2019, 11:02 PM · Very obvious difference - they both sound good, Chen's technique seems to fit the Guarneri better.

TwoSet did a similar demonstration: the influence of the player is magnified in the video.

April 16, 2019, 6:48 AM · Listening just once on my phone I heard differences but not earth-shaking ones. I'm sure that on better equipment or live, those differences would have been more striking. The del Gesu sounded to me warmer and richer; the Widenhouse refreshing and a bit more clear.


As the OP pointed out, it was not intended as a formal comparison test. But as long as he was at it, I so wish that he had played shorter excerpts - and the same ones - back and forth, and ones that go across the strings, eg the opening of the Bruch G minor, or better yet the Beethoven or Tchaikovsky openings, as the latter 2 go up the strings and back down. With long excerpts we tend to get drawn in more to the music and the performer - which at a concert, is certainly as it should be.


Anyway, my brief visit to that YouTube got my fingers itching to practice another hour - and to re-appreciate my own collection of violins and bows!

April 16, 2019, 9:04 PM · Sound quality of a phone is pretty poor, you're not going to hear as much differences there.
April 16, 2019, 9:29 PM · I know . I acknowledged that.
April 16, 2019, 10:55 PM · To hear the warmth of a del Gesu violin you really need to be playing back the music through a tube amplifier.
April 16, 2019, 11:03 PM · I am using a 60s tube amplifier.
April 17, 2019, 8:48 AM · Ray’s attitude seems really open minded, it’s about learning from each violin. It’s a good point made earlier above that we are discussing sound within the context and variability of recording and playback setups and we should be realistic about those limits.

I just watched an old YouTube video with that specific violin maker Widenhouse where he perhaps self deprecating said 80-90% was the player and only 10-20% was the violin. Which means perhaps I should get back to practicing more instead of watching YouTube violin videos..!

April 17, 2019, 9:12 AM · 10-20% is still pretty significant. Remember that many musicians are willing to pay vast sums for that extra marginal gain of maybe 1%.

"To hear the warmth of a del Gesu violin you really need to be playing back the music through a tube amplifier"

To hear the warmth of a del Gesu and appreciate the difference between it and a modern instrument, you need to PLAY it.

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