If you’re an NPR listener or a regular reader of various high-end newspaper arts sections, you probably saw the story that’s been kicking around over the last couple of days. According to some researchers (at least one of them a well-known violin dealer,) a collection of professional musicians assembled for a “double-blind study” were unable to detect the difference between some 300-year-old Stradivarius violins and other well-made but modern instruments.
On the surface, news like this warms my heart. As great as the old Italian masters were at crafting some of the finest string instruments the world has ever known, I’ve always resented the way that collectors have driven their price so sky-high that pretty much no musician can afford them. I’ve also heard plenty of excellent modern instruments, including a few that I felt stacked up awfully well against their ultra-antique rivals. Overall, I tend to consider Strads, Guarneris, and the like to be great if you can get one, but generally overrated as a concept.
Still, something about this “double-blind study” struck me as odd. As I said, I’m very open to the argument that the best modern instruments are just as good as the best old Italians. But that doesn’t mean that they actually sound the same as each other. As part of NPR’s reporting on the study, correspondent Christopher Joyce offered up an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, played once on a Strad and once on a fine modern instrument. He then challenged listeners to pick the Strad, offering up the correct answer at the end of his report.
And here’s the thing: I nailed it almost instantly, even over the radio. And judging by my Facebook feed, which has been deluged with friends reposting the NPR link over the last 24 hours, so did pretty much every other professional string player I know. I might have had more trouble had the excerpt Joyce chosen been something other than the Tchaikovsky, but that piece, starting as it does in the lowest register of the violin, immediately shows off the depth and projection that define the sound of the Strad. The modern fiddle sounded great, and I thought it was even better than the Strad at various points during the excerpt. But it didn’t sound like a Strad.
Of course, NPR never said that this was one of the Strads used in the study (it probably wasn’t,) and since the participants in the study were playing the instruments, not just listening to them, that makes a difference. (If you’ve never played a string instrument, you’d be stunned by how different they sound when they’re an inch from your left ear.) Cellist Steven Isserlis, never shy with his opinions, penned an interesting counterpoint in The Guardian, in which he questioned whether all the instruments used were in proper adjustment, and asking the all-important question of who, exactly, were the musicians involved in the test. Composer Marcus Balter and critic Alex Ross discussed the matter over Twitter, with Balter pointing out that “All [the] testers were young violinists, and the test was in a hotel room.”
None of this actually matters in the real world, of course. The monetary value of fine instruments isn’t set by any objective measure of quality – it’s set by a combination of supply and demand and the shadowy world of auction houses, instrument dealers and collectors. Furthermore, every musician has his/her own tastes, and not every player is a good match for every instrument, no matter how well-made. I once spent a few weeks playing on a Testore viola that made me want to never play on anything else again, and I once played a Guarneri del Gesu that I couldn’t begin to get a decent sound from. They were both great instruments – one just fit me better than the other.
In the end, I think Isserlis nailed the central problem with this whole discussion: “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.”
UPDATE, 1/6: One of the participants in the study has posted an interesting account of the experience at Norman Lebrecht’s blog.
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