Recent research that saw virtuosos choose modern violins over the Stradivarius fails to appreciate the deep layers of sound that distinguish a great instrument from a good one
I read with interest the article in today's Guardian about the blind testing of Stradivarius violins versus modern violins, from which the modern instruments emerged victorious. There are many aspects to this story. First, it is true that modern makers do tend to be underpaid and under-appreciated; there are definitely many wonderful luthiers working today, whose instruments are finely crafted and deeply satisfying to play. A surprising number of famous string-players opt to perform on modern instruments, even when they own fine old Italian ones; their audiences rarely notice.
On the other hand, the report of this test leaves too many questions unanswered. Perhaps it is not widely known just how important the set-up of a violin (or any other string instrument, of course) is to the sound and feel of that instrument. A tiny movement of the sound-post – the little stick inside a string instrument that lies close to the bridge – can alter the tone completely. In Italian, this sound-post is called the "anima" – the soul. And it is essential to find a luthier or restorer with an instinctive knowledge of where it should be placed in order to elicit the best possible sound; players travel across continents to have their sound-posts moved a fraction of an inch. The shape, thickness and height of the bridge have to be right, too, in order for the instrument to vibrate freely. The strings have to be top quality. And then there's the bow, which is almost as important as the instrument. Presumably the same bow was used for every violin in this test; but different bows react differently to the same instrument. It is the correct combination that matters most.
Then, as mentioned in the article, the players themselves were asked to judge the projection. I can say quite categorically that it is impossible for a performer to judge with any certainty how their sound is carrying in a large hall, unless they know the instrument intimately. A famous (and curious) feature of Stradivarius instruments is that their tone seems to increase with distance. As a rule, if my tone sounds small to me, it means that it is travelling out into the hall; if I am pleased with the large, virile noise I can hear, it means that people are likely to be cupping their ears during and boxing my ears after the concert.
But the chief failing of this test, as reported in the article, is that the players are not identified. Who were they? A performer is married to his or her instrument; and instruments choose their partners as carefully as vice versa. There are various schemes nowadays that offer students short-term loans of great Italian instruments. I think that this is a highly dubious idea – rather like offering someone a husband or wife for a brief time only. We players have to learn to relate to these magnificent works of art, to bring out the deep layers of sound that distinguish a great instrument from a good one.
So finally – I am delighted if modern makers earn the recognition they deserve; but in order to make this happen, it is necessary to have a much more comprehensive test – and it is not necessary to belittle the magical genius of Stradivarius and his very few peers.
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