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  • Ariane Todes

Spain’s Stradivarius quartet


A weekend in Madrid provided the perfect opportunity to view some unusual Stradivarius instruments

There is a lot to do in Madrid – museums and palaces to visit, not to mention tapas bars and restaurants. But for the violin geek, there's really only one destination: the Royal Palace. I have long been curious to see the exquisitely decorated quartet of Stradivarius instruments that lives there – while at The Strad I'd read and published several articles about them. And as they are not allowed out of the Royal Palace, the only way to see them is to take the tour round the palace. And it was worth the visit. Here are my pictures – taken in a hurry and not terribly good, but better than nothing!

The instruments are among eleven that Stradivarius decorated, and include the only cello he made this way. Pictures of instruments in cases like this often invite unhappy comments about why they should be played, rather than caged up like animals. In general I can understand this point of view; however, when you see these particular instruments in the flesh and can understand the phenomenal craftsmanship of the detail you realise how important it is to protect them this way. (Although, somewhat ironically, the cello was damaged a few years ago while a photographer was taking pictures of it.) Violin expert Philip Kass put the argument brilliantly when he wrote this for The Strad in 2011:

'Whatever their acoustic qualities, the importance of these instruments is their extraordinary decoration, which, combined with their rarity, turns them into priceless heirlooms. They were created for kings and emperors, for courtly purposes and occasions, and not for the usual wear and tear, as heavy use would have damaged them... Consider how easily one could lose those delicate inset pieces of ivory, held in place by nothing but glue and ashes, or the decorative filigrees that cover the ribs and scrolls, completely vulnerable once their protective varnish wears off.'

And let's face it, musicians are not always as careful about their instruments as they ought to be – I hold my hand up with shame to that charge, even with my humble Sebastian Klotz. As Kass puts it: 'I can also testify that, in my 35 or so years in the world of fine violins, the degree of attrition due to accidents, abuse, irresponsible repairs and restorations, and normal wear and tear is simply appalling. Consider that, once upon a time, they all looked like the ‘Lady Blunt’ or the ‘Messiah’ and that, if they all still looked that way, we might not even notice these instruments. But the fact is that they are among a paltry few that still resemble what they all once were. Thank goodness there are a few tucked away in museums, keeping them out of our destructive human hands.'

After my weekend in Madrid, I can certainly agree with him.

And here the quartet is in action, being played by the Quiroga Quartet in Brahms's Second Quartet:

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