• Ariane Todes

Brave new violin world

A new collection of specially commissioned unantiqued instruments offers hope of a new Zeitgeist around modern violins. Will top soloists catch on?

This article was first published in the May issue of Classical Music magazine, and is posted with permission.

How should we feel for Frank Peter Zimmermann, who has had to give up the 1711 'Lady Inchiquin' Stradivarius violin he has played since 2002? He had it on loan from a German bank which is being wound up by financial services company, and although there was a buy-out clause in the contract, agreement could not be reached on a price. He lost his chance to buy the instrument and has given it back.

On one hand we can feel sympathy for a sensitive and creative artist who feels he has found his musical soul mate in this instrument, one which allows him to express all the sounds and feelings he is able to conceive with his particularly vivid musical imagination. One can feel disgusted that these days such an artist is simply unable to earn the wherewithal to own a great historic instrument outright and that they lie at the mercy of grey faces in suits pushing money around for a living. One can look sadly back to the days when even the leader of an orchestra would be able to buy a Strad, and think of all the beautiful old instruments lying in bank vaults, their finely calibrated voices silent, their rich golden varnishes unglinting in the dark, their unique personal histories on pause.

Or one can feel intense hope and excitement about the possibility of being at a turning point in musical history, on the cusp of a new Zeitgeist. The story the media loves to dwell on may be how wonderful these old instruments are, harking back to the golden age of Stradivarius and his ‘secret’. The real secret is that the golden age of violin making is right now. The standards of craftsmanship of the finest makers, and the tonal production of their instruments is astonishing.

Why this golden age? Technology has a large part to play. In the old days, a young maker would learn from a master and these techniques would stay inside the workshop. Now there are online forums where top makers share their insights and engage in debates about their craft. In the old days, a maker would only see a fine instrument if they worked in the workshop where it was brought to be fixed, or if they saw some black and white pictures in a book – not nearly enough information to understand how something is made and functions. Now there are photographs of the best instruments all over the internet, up close and personal, to help understand the finest details of construction and materials. So much for secrets.

Indeed this is probably the most significant driver – lutherie knowledge is no longer guarded and kept proprietary. The most driven makers understand that when you share knowledge you also receive it, and as a result of researchers sharing their insights and scientific studies, and of the high-level lutherie conferences around the world, the sheer amount of knowledge about the violin has increased exponentially, and the best makers are able to assimilate the most important factors. And there’s nothing wrong with a little healthy competition, either.

Why should this make Zimmermann feel any better? Because he could commission an instrument from one of today’s leading makers, spend around £30,000-£50,000 on something that was his very own forever, and still have £3.5 million in change from trying to buy the ‘Lady Inchiquin’. It might sound a little fresh at first and take time to play in, but he could have an ongoing relationship with the maker, who would be there to adjust it for him, and it would develop with his playing over time. After all, it sometimes takes years for players to get used to playing a Strad, too, especially if it’s been sitting in a bank vault.

It would certainly be a sign of confidence for Zimmermann to do this. There is so much cultural baggage surrounding Strads, and a certain false logic that goes ‘great players play Strads, therefore if you play a Strad you’re a great player and if you don’t you’re not’. This is patently not true: I’ve seen many not-great players on Strads, and Frank Peter Zimmermann is undoubtedly a great player and will be whatever he plays. You only have to look at his compatriot Christian Tetzlaff, one of the only top players to choose a modern instrument, to know that a modern instrument does not have a negative affect on the career of a such a player.

Attitudinal change has to come from the top, from the likes of Tetzlaff and Zimmermann. It also has to come from grass roots, from teachers being open about modern instruments with their students, for whom the financial future is scary enough without factoring in over-priced instruments. The Royal Academy of Music’s Calleva Collection is an excellent example of visionary thinking in this respect. Since 2010 the Calleva Foundation has been commissioning stringed instruments from some of the finest makers of the current generation, all of them to look brand new, rather than antiqued, as is the current norm. The instruments are played by students and last month the collection made its debut in a concert at the Academy, which I attended.

The instruments of the Calleva Collection look beautiful and sound wonderful. Do they sound like Strads? Of course they don’t sound like the Strads we hear today that have been fussed over and cherished for centuries. However, they do sound how instruments such as the ‘Lady Inchiquin’ would have sounded back in the 1711, hot off the press. They sound like the instruments that Bach and Mozart would have heard and were composing for. It’s an exciting sound, maybe a little unformed and raw and brash, but strong and vibrant. It’s the sound of the future. So go on, Frank, seize the day! Go modern!

Photos courtesy Royal Academy of Music/Calleva Collection

Photos from the Calleva Collection (or browse the gallery)

Andrea Frandsen viola, 2014

Patrick Robin viola, 2014

Peter Beare violin, 2010

Andrew Fairfax violin, 2013

Joseph Grubaugh & Sigrun Seifert cello, 2013

Luca Primon violin, 2013

Antoine Cauche viola, 2010

Christoph Gotting violin, 2012

Mario Miralles viola, 2012

Frank Ravatin cello, 2014

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