Season of Violins
Yehudi Menuhin owned two Stradivaris, one Guarneri del Gesù, one Guadagnini, and one Grancino, as well as other violins, both antique and modern. He once defined what instruments like these meant to him: »A great violin is alive; its wood stores the history, or the soul, of its successive owners. I never play without feeling that I have released or absorbed or, alas, violated spirits.«
It would have been rather cheeky to ask the great artist and humanitarian how the famous »Lord Nelson« Stradivari of 1690 might have spoken to him, had he ever played it. The instrument got its nickname from having been on Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It belonged to an officer and – unlike the British admiral – survived the battle unscathed.
Menuhin was open to being inspired by the aura of old instruments. But of course he was aware that not everything audiences think they hear can be put down to the genius of an Antonio Stradivari – more to a desire to hear the angels singing, however earth-bound the concert. For some years, the »Earl« Stradivari of 1722, named after its onetime owner the Earl of Westmoreland, was played by the »devil’s fiddler«, Paganini. Anyone knowing that, would easily be tempted to credit instrument with a literally supernatural sound and expressivity, even when only played by the late Gerhard Kander, concertmaster in Toronto. Which violin did Menuhin prefer? He found that hard to answer himself: »I could recount my entire life in terms of a dialectical argument between the Stradivari and the Guarneri del Gesù.«
Stradivari was a genius and musical history’s foremost luthier, thanks not least to his incredible productivity over a lifespan of biblical proportions for those times. Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri del Gesù, on the other hand, was a brilliant bodger, who died as young as 47. Guarneri’s instruments are less perfectly balanced and not as carefully crafted. Yet the sound of some of his violins is superior even to those from Stradivari’s golden period (1700-1720). Eugène Ysaÿe, Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz preferred Guarneris. Menuhin described the sound of his »Lord Wilton« Guarneri of 1742 as earthy and passionate, compared to the aristocratic tone of his two Stradivaris: »One must rise to a Strad before it will speak from its craftsman’s soul. As master, there is ultimately no pleasing him except by faultless workmanship. A fellow human mercifully absolving the player of his gaffes, the Guarneri, with earthier voice, sings through its pores and sings de profundis.«
Stradivari, Guarneri – or perhaps, when it comes to it, Guadagnini? This season, Bamberg’s concert-goers will get a rare chance to form their own opinions of the different characteristics of these masterpieces of violin-making, provided of course they can distinguish between the instruments’ inherent tonal qualities and the abilities of whoever happens to be playing them. Nice problem to have, though! – who has ever been able to enjoy a »Season of Supreme Violins«, which is also a »Season of Supreme Violinists« playing no fewer than eight different instruments from the workshops of Stradivari, Guarneri and Guadagnini?
In the case of Lisa Batiashvili and Taiwan’s Ray Chen, we would of course have been exceedingly lucky to hear them playing the same instrument. The outstanding Lisa Batiashvili used to play the ex-Joachim Stradivari of 1714, now loaned to Ray Chen; she herself currently has the use of a Guarneri del Gesù from 1739. Ye-Eun Choi of Korea, a pupil of the brilliant teacher Ana Chumachenco in Munich like Lisa Batiashvili, also plays a Guarneri del Gesù. As it happens, so does our principal concertmaster, Bart Vandenbogaerde. Japan’s Akiko Suwanai is another lucky possessor of a Stradivari, the »Dolphin« Strad of 1714. Julian Rachlin plays the ex-Schneiderhan Stradivari of 1704, and these days Frank Peter Zimmermann has at his disposal the famous »Général Dupont« Stradivari, which was Arthur Grumiaux’s concert instrument.
Fortunate as all these artists are with their precious instruments, they would be even more fortunate were they to own them, which is less often the case. Over the years, violins like these have become so valuable that few can afford to purchase them. They’re usually owned by consortia, foundations or even patrons, who make them available on loan to artists for set periods, including aspiring soloists at the start of their careers. The highest ever price at auction was achieved in 2011 by the »Lady Blunt« Stradivari: US$15,821,285. Incidentally, the life stories of many valuable violins read almost like a series of surreal crime capers. Quite a few instruments have been stolen, never to resurface. One curious case is that of the »Kiesewetter« Stradivari of 1723: Maxim Vengerov used to play it, before it was loaned to the Russo-American violinist Philippe Quint, who on 21 April 2008 forgot it in a cab. The next day, the honest cab-driver returned the instrument. Out of gratitude, Quint gave an exclusive recital: for all the cab-drivers at Newark Airport.