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Maxim Vengerov: Strads are best, but they need help

May 10, 2017 by norman lebrecht

10 comments.


The formidable violinist writes to Slipped Disc, suggesting that tests of Strads against modern instruments are founded on false premises:

 

 

My dear Friends! if I may add anything:)

My first Strad I ever touched, I was 10 years old. It was 1984 and I was preparing myself for the Junior Wieniawski Competition. My teacher at that time professor Bron, helped me to get the Stradivari from the Soviet Union’s State rare instrument collection. It was Strad’s half-size unique instrument. When I took this instrument for the first time, I thought that like with a wave of magic stick, I would start making miraculous sounds. Next minute, I could not believe my ears when the violin sounded so terrible to compare to my modern instrument that I “mastered” playing at that time. I compared the two instruments playing the same piece over and over again to my father, seeking his approval that the whole Stradivari thing is a total myth!!!

My Dad was working as an oboist of the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra. He was also a professional piano tuner. I shared with him my first shocking Strad experience. He smiled and said to me that I should not be disappointed. “Just learn how to play it, close your eyes, open your ears and listen to the overtones. Find that sound, find your own voice in Music, this instrument will teach you everything you need to know”. From that moment on my life in Music began…

Today, I am lucky to say that I played perhaps over 40 Strads and other precious instruments like Guarneri Del Jesu.
All Stradivari’s violins I have had fortune to touch, all his instruments with almost no exception are also a treasure. There is however quite a bit of work involved. First, you need a player that is willing to be flexible to go as far as to change his or her own violin technic for the violin that he or she is playing. Then, you need a superb violin maker to perform a fine tuning – an adjustment of the instrument for a player’s taste. In other words, it’s a partnership, like a trio: violin, violinist and a violinmaker. But then, the most interesting happens when you go to the concert hall! Not even during rehearsal, the ultimate test of the instrument and your ability to play it, is awaiting you together with thousands of spectators when you enter the concert stage. Only then, real work begins.

The first time I played my own “Kreutzer” Strad was playing in Chicago with Rostropovich conducting me in Shostakovitch’s violin concerto. After the concert my beloved Slava asked me: Maxim, what instrument are you playing? I proudly declared: Strad, 1727, used to be owned by the legendary Kreutzer!

With no hesitation Rostropovich threw at me: Change it!!

It took me, and two of my violin makers Florian Leonhard and Nahum Tuch about half a year to “lift this unique violin up” to the absolute Everest. The process was a truly unbelievable roller-coaster that is hard to describe!

When you play phenomenal Guarneri “Del Gesu ” violins, you can play it as you wish. The instrument will realize all your dreams and expectations about the sound, providing you are a skillful player. All those magic violins made by Antonio Stradivari I got to know, made me into a more flexible player I am today. Flexible, because when you hold Strad, you do not play it – it teaches you how to sing it, with his violins you are able to discover the magical palette of colors and more over, every day it’s a bit of another instrument. It is alive, truly mystical, like a person. Strad is my daily life changing experience!

I hope it helps:) For more, do come to my concerts or get my new cd’s. They will soon be available. I will keep you posted. Best wishes to All Music lovers at Slipped Disc and not only:) Yours with love, Maxim Vengerov

Read more here. 


Comments (10)

  1. Andy says:

    I heard Vengerov playing the Beethoven concerto, presumably on his Stradivarius a few years ago, at the Barbican. Unforgettable experience, although the purest violin sound I ever heard was Akiko Suwanai playing the same Concerto in Poole a couple of years ago, presumably on the ex-Heifetz ‘Dolphin’ Strad. The sounds she got from that were unbelievable. It’s hard to know what the variable is though, is it the violin, the player, the hall, where in the hall you are sat? Not sure. I’ve heard a lot of violin players and I’ve never heard anything like that, before or since.

  2. Andy says:

    Incidentally, if Mr Vengerov is reading this, when I heard him playing Beethoven at the Barbican (2006 I think) I’d taken my dad for his birthday, and it was an unforgettable experience., and I’d like to thank Mr Vengerov for it, and hope that one day we will hear him again.

  3. Craig says:

    Good ‘workhorse’ instruments that have all-round strengths tend to impress immediately, but these characterful older instruments will, given time with a player, do certain things better than anything else out there.

    There’s an interview out there with FP Zimmerman on how he had to give up his old Strad and found a new one. The story he tells of being approached by an elderly man and pleaded with to play his violin, followed by them going backstage, playing it for a few minutes and him correctly identifying it as Arthur Grumiaux’s old instrument purely from its character is testament to the charm of these Strads.

    The experiment was a worthwhile one, but it was sadly only under these controlled conditions where it could be an objective exercise.

    1. Will Duffay says:

      ‘The experiment was a worthwhile one, but it was sadly only under these controlled conditions where it could be an objective exercise.’

      It’s a shame the academic paper is locked behind a paywall because the researchers when to great lengths to make the tests as real and as effective as possible.

      There’s clearly a strong psychological element to this: people will give huge reference to old instruments, and will be tempted to imbue them with characteristics because of their age and prestige that they actually don’t have.

      The clear result of the studies (and previous studies) is that experienced players and listeners not only can’t identify modern instruments and Strads, but actually prefer the modern instruments.

      1. Craig says:

        I assume a lot of us have heard someone play a fine antique violin in concert and been captivated by the sound that the performer made. These aren’t necessarily objectively inferior instruments, just temperamental. What this experiment has proven is that they are generally objectively worse on first impressions. Sometimes it takes months to get used to them and to use them to their full potential, and I guess the question is whether that wait is worth it when you can get instant results from a modern instrument. The latter may in turn not appeal to some people.

        If a soloist is able to identify a specific instrument from its sound without looking too hard at it, there must be something distinctive about them, and therefore something that attracts people to them. I’m not a string player, so I have no vested interests here, but I refuse to believe that the reputation of the Stradivari family of instruments has ridden purely on hype for the last few centuries. Unfortunately, no one has yet invented a machine that can measure these things, so another more abstract question to ask is whether judging these instruments under controlled conditions is completely fair, given the unquantifiable personal relationships that performers build with them over long periods.

  4. Ungeheuer says:

    Such a great violinist. His Shostakovich concertos disc with Rostropovich is desert island stuff.

  5. Bacca says:

    I agree. Comparing Del Gesu and Strads, playing a del gesu is like learning to drive a rolls royce. Playing a Strad is like finding a partner in life – you have to give in, compromise, and learn.

  6. Hugh Jorgan says:

    So how can Mr Venherov judge Stradivaris or antiques against modern instruments when he has only ever played the former? I find this to be a gushing and rather patronizing contribution which is of scarce comfort for brilliant but impecunious young violinists.

  7. Maxim Vengerov says:

    Dear reader,

    This is to clarify the fact that I do have in my possession one of the best instruments of Samuel Zigmuntovitch who I regard as one the most gifted violin makers of today. We have spent a fair amount of time to optimize the sound qualities of his instruments. The second instrument mr. Zygmuntovich made for me is a better violin then the first one he has made for me. However so, the quality of sound still cannot be compared with instruments made by Antonio Stradivari. Now, having said that, perhaps today one can create violins that might project stronger in the concert hall, but, first of all that is not the objectives in music to be louder, and secondly nobody in my opinion has yet created an instrument that can match the finesse warmth and depth of the old instruments like Stradivari did. Antonio Stradivari was like J.S. Bach or Mozart and I would suggest not to even go Into comparison with the modern breed of instruments.
    I hope that clarifies the matter. I would also suggest that before putting the news as such, journalists would interview my respected collegues or myself to get to the bottom of the subject. People deserve to know the truth and there are enough qualified people in every field in music to answer most controversial questions. There maybe different opinions, but at least they would be based on the actual experiences of the professionals who have put their heart and souls into their work. They have dedicated their lives to become masters in their field, and therefore they have earned the right to have an opinion. Maxim Vengerov

  8. Claudia Fritz says:

    As authors of “Listener evaluations of new and Old Italian violins” (http://josephcurtinstudios.com/article/listener-evaluations-new-old-italian-violins/), we have followed this discussion with great interest. Given your stature, Mr. Vengerov, as a one of the great violinists of our time, we would like to address some of the issues you raise.

    While comparisons of Stradivari with Bach and Mozart may well be warranted, they raise an interesting question. Any classical musician can recognize the work of Bach or Mozart in seconds – or even fractions of a second. Similarly, violin experts can quickly tell a Strad from a Guarneri or a Guadagnini or a Vuillaume, at least by eye. Why then does identifying violins by playing or listening to them seem to present such a challenge? We have yet to find evidence that even highly experienced soloists can reliably distinguish old violins from new – or for that matter, those of Stradivari from those by Guarneri del Gesu.
    Mr. Vengerov, do you believe that you can distinguish old from new? If so, would you be willing to demonstrate this under blind conditions? We ask this sincerely, as your participation in our research would be invaluable.

    Regarding the advantages in projection offered by at least some new instruments, you write that “it is not the objective in music to be louder.” Perhaps, but if one listens to virtually any concerto recording, the solo violin is given a remarkable degree of presence and immediacy, presumably because recording artists, record producers, and record buyers like it that way. Such presence and immediacy is never experienced by an audience in a large hall – for the simple reason that no violin (old or new) can deliver that much sound. Some violins are better than others in this regard. A violin treasured for its “warmth and depth” under the ear may not carry well in large venues.
    Is it not worth giving serious consideration to research that provides objective (rather than anecdotal) evidence about which instruments project best?

    If you were to blind-test your Stradivari against your Zygmuntowicz under concert conditions, how confident are you that listeners would prefer the Strad? Our study suggests that while better-projecting instruments are preferred by listeners, not all soloists choose to play them.

    Sincerely,
    Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin and Fan-Chia Tao


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