• Ariane Todes

Pinchas Zukerman: violin geek


In honour of Pinchas Zukerman's performance tonight of the Elgar Violin Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at London's Southbank Centre, I thought I'd republish an interview I did with him while I was at The Strad, as it was one of my favourites. I was interviewing him for a tribute to luthier René Morel for the February 2012 issue, but Zukerman was in chatty mood and said some wonderful and thought-provoking things about violins and musical attitudes:

Pinchas Zukerman is endlessly passionate about instruments. Even down the phone the love he has for the tools of his trade is clear. In fact, it’s more than love: ‘I’ll never forget my first trip to Cremona. I had to go – it’s like going to Jerusalem for some religious people. I had no money and I hired a car. I arrived there, rolled down the window and asked, “Dove è la casa di Stradivari?” and the man looked at me and said, “Eh?” He didn’t know who Stradivari was. But I finally found the right street and it was like a pilgrimage. I’m not a religious person, but that’s how it felt, and why it was so important to me to be there. This is a religion for me.’

He revealed a special ritual he has: ‘When I am anywhere near Cremona, I open the window and the violin case in the hotel and say, “Welcome home”. I pick it up and it goes, “Hey, thanks for bringing me home. I really sound better now!” I’ve done this for years. It’s like going to the beauty parlour.’

‘Don’t think that because you’ve played one or two good concerts you’ve arrived, because you haven’​t’

Such a relationship demands commitment: ‘If the instrument isn’t right then I’m not right and vice versa: the instrument knows when I’m not right. That’s why we need to go to that case every day – open it up, look inside, make sure that everything is still intact, tune up and play a few scales. Don’t think that because you’ve played one or two good concerts you’ve arrived, because you haven’t. This is the incredible essence of power and strength that we have, and we’re very lucky.’

‘These days it seems that anyone who has an international reputation must play on an instrument by Stradivari or ‘del Gesù’. But it’s not true’

Although he plays a 1742 Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ Zukerman is not precious about such instruments: ‘People come to a concert, see a violinist and say, “Oh, he’s playing a Stradivari. Isn’t that wonderful?” What does that mean? They have no idea. And they say, “The Stradivari is the one that sounds best.” But not necessarily: it depends on the player, the bow, on many other factors. And some people don’t play those instruments. These days it seems that anyone who has an international reputation must play on an instrument by Stradivari or ‘del Gesù’. But it’s not true.’

‘Nature takes its own course – it can’t be driven by some sort of app to make the instrument older’

It’s not surprising that he is a great advocate of modern instruments: ‘I’ve watched all sorts of makers carve wood and it’s amazing. To make that wood work as an extension of a person, and of the music, is a fine art. There are a lot of wonderful makers today who are dedicated to making sure their instruments work. I like many of them. We need to see the time span of how long they last and how good they will be in 50 years’ time, though. We don’t know that. Nature takes its own course – it can’t be driven by some sort of app to make the instrument older. That comes from playing, from the rosin going into the wood, a lot of other things.’

The growing quality at the lower end of the market represents the future, he explains: ‘There are great makers all over the world now. We see an enormous number of instruments coming from Asia – particularly Japan and China. Young kids can play on well set-up instruments – not junk that doesn’t work. The strings are good, the bridges are good, the dimensions are correct. It’s important for teaching to set instruments up properly like this. We don’t always think about making sure of proper dimensions or that the bridge is the right height so that the strings don’t hurt the little ones’ fingers. These are all important elements that go into making good players and to continue the tradition.’

A remarkable 45 minutes with a remarkable player and a remarkable man.

And here he is rehearsing the Elgar, his trademark power sound in action:

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