IN: Reviews

Enjoying Expensive Sonic Splendor

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Are rare antique violins from Stradivari and his followers really as amazing as touted? That was the question on the audience’s mind at the “Stradivari Serenade” Friday night, March 29th, in Jordan Hall.  A Far Cry and Christopher Reuning, a Boston violin connoisseur with an international presence in the rare violin trade, addressed it in a highly stimulating way.  To carry out the evening’s magic trick, Reuning’s shop, that focuses on expertise, maintenance, and commerce in stringed instruments, invited the Criers to swap their usual instruments for historic violins, violas and cellos from 17th and 18th century northern Italy. Lacking before and after comparison to the customary violins of the ensemble, it was not really a fair trial, but the smiles on the faces of temporary possessors of these excellent old instruments basically proved the point. Interspersed by active and illuminating debate led by Terrance McKnight, the urbane and witty host for classical music at New York’s WQXR, a large and highly engaged audience enthusiastically cheered on both the players and the instruments.

While there’s constant revision by historians of who taught what to whom, the evolution of today’s prized Italian instruments dates back primarily to the small towns of Cremona and Brescia. In the early 16th century, extraordinary craftsmen assembled, found apprentices, and experimented, with three generations of the Amati family emerging pre-eminent in Cremona. In the early 1600s, the Amatis came up with the “grand pattern” shape and proportions that has persisted to this day. In a nutshell, the violin’s body length has ever since hovered around 14 inches, with the width of the lower bout greater than 8 inches. In contrast, however, violas, cellos and basses have never reached such unanimity in size.

What has changed mightily are the demands placed on these early instruments. Starting in 1800 in France, the Tourte family transformed bows by introducing a concave arch to the wood, enabling the artist to put much more pressure on a string without striking more than one at a time. That led quickly to the pyrotechnics of Paganini and the ability to achieve a volume of sound required for violin concerti of widely varying stripes. It’s improbable that the makers of Stradivari’s time conceived of a sound that would carry in Symphony Hall. Their instruments were designed for strings of low tension, gentle pressure from the bow, low bridges, short finger boards, and concomitantly modest interior supports. Today, virtually all have been adapted for entirely different requirements. The miracle is that many feel that these same instruments remain preeminent, and the vast majority of virtuosi or chamber musicians choose to play them whenever possible.

But some don’t. Hilary Hahn is happy to use violins created by Vuillaume in France 100 years after Stradivari died, and Christian Tetzlaff swears by violins fashioned by Stefan-Peter Greiner, a contemporary German maker. Prominent string quartets increasingly mix and match the old with the new. And forget about choice. For most musicians, the extraordinary prices commanded today for old Italian instruments preclude using them unless a donor with very deep pockets can be found. That has actually had a gratifying consequence: a renaissance of luthiers. Some extraordinary violins and bows are made today, and talented contemporary makers are seeing their incomes rising rapidly.  

How much of the difference between the new and the old is “real,” and how well can a player or listener distinguish between the young and the old when put to the test? There’s no clear answer, and comparisons and competitions breed both uncertainty and strong feelings. Bottom line: In the aggregate, when players stand behind curtains and audiences are asked to choose, or when they can’t see what’s in their hands and are asked to choose, neither modern instruments nor eminent old ones consistently emerge as clear winners. There’s little question that modern instruments can have very fine voices, and indeed may be more easily heard in a large hall than many of the old ones. But then people turn to metaphors and characteristics hard to measure. Which sound is more “malleable?” Which instrument is better able to produce a whispering pianissimo or tonal nuance, while also piercing through thick accompaniments when necessary? Which is easier to play? How long does it take to get used to an old instrument? What is the effect of all the different bows? When does rapid bow speed or heavy bow pressure reward the player…and on which instrument? The list goes on and on.

Led with dash by MC McKnight, the concert was interspersed with commentary, questioning and dialogue involving Reuning and the Criers. They demonstrated individually the instruments they chose at his shop earlier in the week (HERE). They also gave brief excerpts in pairs of violins, or quartets of cellos and violas. Each player/instrument sounded different, but it wasn’t a matter of better or worse in such excellent hands, even though the individual instruments had been in their service for a few hours at the most.

Collectively, they rewarded the audience with a charming and illustrative range of music, starting with Tchaikovsky’s familiar Serenade for Strings, Op 48, composed in 1880. The first movement, marked in “forma di sonatina” begins with an andante; a lively allegro followed, calling both for light, spiccato bowing and some very quiet moments. We all had high expectations, which the performance realized. The transparency and lightness of touch among the higher strings, which the bounce and liquidity of the lower voices matched, startled me. I have heard the Serenade many times, but the air between the notes was striking, and the emotional effects of the first chords of the andante mesmerized.

Bach’s familiar Concerto in D Minor for two violins (BWV 1043) followed the individual presentations of the violins. Three different pairs of soloists took the lead in the three movements. Given the focus of this unusual concert, this was a very good idea, but it didn’t quite work because the ensemble took the concerto at a very rapid tempo, akin to that “original instrument” ensembles typically choose these days. The notes were there, but the audience had little chance to breathe, and that tempered my appreciation…a disappointment that others shared.

Following intermission came a “Baroque and Renaissance Set,” a chuchumbé arranged by Alex Fortes, a Crier who enjoyed the prized violin of the evening, a 1720 “golden period” Stradivarius (those of us of a certain age should take comfort in the fact that Stradivarius created his greatest instruments after he was 60, and on into his 80’s). I have to confess to ignorance about this musical form, so I resort to Wikipedia and AI who collectively note that “….Chuchumbé is a musical tradition from southern Veracruz, Mexico, that combines new and traditional elements in verse and dance. It originated in Cuba as a dance and was brought to Veracruz in the late 1700s. Chuchumbé is known for its sexual lyrics, as well as for criticizing society and being satirical.” The short, rollicking, humor-filled work came across with brilliant pizzicati ringing out in the hall. It showcased the collective virtuosity of the Criers.

Perhaps the musical highlight of the evening came with the performance of the first and fifth movements of Leoš Janáček’s Idyla for String Orchestra, ILJ 9, (1878).

A melodic work that quickly brings Dvořák to mind, the first movement possesses a tart edge and a sense of subdued urgency in the recordings I surveyed. In contrast, Friday’s performance felt relaxed and, once again, almost spookily transparent, with the varied voices shining through warmly and calmly. The fifth movement, which is heard in the film for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, calls on all the strings to be subdued, including muted pizzicati in the lower voices. The effect was both breathtaking and melancholy. Again, Dvořák seemed close at hand, as did tragedy somewhere in the composer’s sensibility. The performance was magnificent.

The concert closed with Sapo Perapaskero Turceasca, in Osvaldo Golijov’s & Ljova’s 2009 arrangement. The rollicking gypsy fun began with a solo dance which violinist Forte delivered on the aforementioned Strad; solo licks followed for two other violins, a viola, and the principal bass had a staggering turn that almost brought me to my feet. The personnel changed places, danced, shrieked, struck cellos with a stick (the ca 1700 Tononi cello must have wondered whether this was all worthwhile), and the ensemble proved that old instruments by no means had to be well behaved. Ending with a bang, the audience shot to its feet, and Ljova, resplendent in a multicolored, celebratory shirt, was asked to stand at the insistence of all concerned.

A ready encore followed: the waltz movement from the Tchaikovsky Serenade. The players and instruments sounded as if one. But sadly, Reuning’s staff were waiting in the wings to cart the treasures away.

So, the focus was on the instruments, but what about the interpretive artists…likely the most important variable in the unfolding experiment? Recall the (likely apocryphal) story attributed to Jascha Heifetz who encountered an audience member in the green room following a concert, gushing, “Oh, Maestro, your violin sounded magnificent tonight!”  Heifetz held up the fiddle and put it to his ear.  “I don’t hear anything,” he replied, suggesting strongly that chemistry between an instrument and its executant is required to achieve the ultimate goal: the violin’s sound.

To elucidate that further the next time A Far Cry and Reuning get together, there’s an opportunity. The pairs of Criers offer fascinating comparisons as they demonstrated together and one after another, but might not each couple switch  violins (and bows) halfway through? That could test the most important variable of all…the chemistry of the duet comprising the exponent and the instrument.

Writing on April 1st, the evening was a far cry from the usual! It will be streamed HERE at 6pm on Tuesday, April 2. I urge you to tune in.

Tom Delbanco is the Keane Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. An avid violinist since age nine, he has particular interest in the evolution of stringed instruments from the 16th century on. Tom is fortunate to have been mentored by connoisseurs, including Rembert Wurlitzer, Dario D’Attili, Charles Beare, Carl Becker, Peter and Wendela Moes, Chris Reuning and Karl Dennis.

2 Comments »

2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. It’s unusual for reviewers to have a chance to check their reflexes shortly after committing their opinions to print, but the remarkable film of the concert I appraised that’s freely available at http://www.theviolinchannel.com makes me offer an addendum:
    1) I left out one of the highlights of the evening…a deconstructed movement of a Bach solo cello suite charmingly played by the four Crier cellists and their cellos, variously created in Venice and Bologna, well to the east of Brescia and Cremona. Of note, many of the greatest cellos extant hail from those locales. Indeed, Venetian cellos are often prized at least as highly as those hailing from Cremona.
    2) I was too harsh in my assessment of the Bach concerto. While I continue to feel the first movement’s haste obscured the character of the voices of the two soloists, the slow movement was wonderfully expressive, and the jaunty way the Strad and Amati traded off in the final movement was splendid.

    It’s amazing what modern filming/sound technology can do. I was unaware that the concert was being filmed, and yet we end up with a video that has terrific sonic clarity and visual variety. You won’t be disappointed if you sit down and watch it.

    Comment by tom delbanco — April 3, 2024 at 12:43 pm

  2. I appreciate Tom’s finely written and informative review. One question came up during the evening which never was answered. Here is the answer: There were two basses lined up by a colleague who deals in basses (I don’t) but these sadly fell through at the last moment. Nevertheless, the Crier’s basses were up to the task and held their own admirably! Thanks to all who attended or watched the recorded broadcast of this very special evening. It was a privilege to be involved.

    Comment by Christopher Reuning — April 3, 2024 at 5:05 pm

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