HI-FI de­con­STrucTed

Rod Eas­down may know a lot about vi­o­lins, but he’d still flog his Stradi­vari to the high­est bid­der…

Australian HIFI - - CONTENTS -

Blind lis­ten­ing tests re­veal that vi­o­lins do sound dif­fer­ent. But… and it’s a big but!

Maybe you don’t know much about vi­o­lins, but I’m will­ing to bet a dol­lar you think you know enough to an­swer the fol­low­ing two ques­tions. Ques­tion 1: Who made the most valu­able vi­o­lin in the world? Ques­tion 2: Who made the best-sound­ing vi­o­lin in the world?

And I’m will­ing to bet your an­swer to both ques­tions is the same; An­to­nio Stradi­vari. If so, you’re wrong on both counts. The most valu­able vi­o­lin in the world ain’t a Strad, it’s a Vieux­temps Guarneri. It was made in the 18th cen­tury in Cre­mona, Italy, and it was sold to an anony­mous buyer in 2012 for $US16 mil­lion, enough in Aus­tralian dol­lars to buy a cou­ple of threeby-one houses in outer Mel­bourne or an in­ner-city ter­race in Syd­ney (needs work).

Vi­o­lins built by mem­bers of the Guarneri fam­ily and their Cre­monese neigh­bours, the Stradi­vari and the Amati fam­i­lies, reg­u­larly sell in the seven and eight-fig­ure range be­cause mu­si­cians value them so highly for their sound qual­ity, and the se­cret of that spe­cial sound is one of mu­sic’s con­tin­u­ing mys­ter­ies, although I once read a de­tailed re­port sug­gest­ing it was all about the glue.

Amer­i­can vi­o­lin­ist Anne Akiko Mey­ers is one such mu­si­cian and who­ever that buyer of the $16 mil­lion num­ber was, he or she was so im­pressed by Meyer’s tal­ent that he or she pre­sented it to her for a life­long loan. I would have taken the 16 mill.

Ah, but there is now solid and grow­ing ev­i­dence sug­gest­ing modern vi­o­lins sound just as good, maybe even bet­ter, than these an­cient mas­ter­pieces. And if that’s so, what’s the point of pay­ing $16 mil­lion for a sec­ond-hand vi­o­lin?

Stud­ies by Clau­dia Fritz, a flautist and mu­si­cal acous­tics re­searcher at the Pierre and Marie Curie Univer­sity in Paris, and Joseph Curtin, a vi­o­lin maker in Michi­gan USA, have shown that pro­fes­sional vi­o­lin­ists wear­ing gog­gles that pre­vent them clearly see­ing the in­stru­ment they are play­ing can’t tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween a Cre­monese mas­ter­piece and a well-made modern of­fer­ing, and they gen­er­ally pre­fer the sound of the lat­ter. And a study re­cently pre­sented in the heavy­weight sci­en­tific jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences sug­gests the same is true of au­di­ences.

Please note that a vi­o­lin made by Joseph Curtin is not ex­actly cheap. Ye­hudi Menuhin has one, so does Rug­giero Ricci. In­deed in 2013 one of Ricci’s vi­o­lins bear­ing Curtin’s name set a world record at auc­tion for a vi­o­lin made by some­one who is still liv­ing. The price, how­ever, was some­what less than $16 mil­lion. Ac­tu­ally it was $US132,000, or less than one one-hun­dred-and-twen­ti­eth the price of the Guarneri. Curtin may have an axe to grind, but he does have a point.

He and Fritz con­ducted ex­per­i­ments in con­cert halls in Paris and New York in which matched pairs of in­stru­ments, one old and one new in each pair, were put against each other in a se­ries of tests, some solo and oth­ers with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing orches­tra, and the gog­gles were used to pre­vent the play­ers know­ing which in­stru­ment was which. The au­di­ence view of the play­ers was blocked by acous­ti­cally trans­par­ent screens. And this was not just any old au­di­ence, it was made up of other mu­si­cians, crit­ics and com­posers.

In both cities both au­di­ences and mu­si­cians agreed that the new in­stru­ments had bet­ter sound pro­jec­tion than the old ones. In New York the au­di­ence was asked which in­stru­ments it pre­ferred and those folk nom­i­nated the new one even though, like the play­ers, the test­ing sug­gested they re­ally couldn’t tell with any ac­cu­racy which was which. ‘There’s this car­i­ca­ture that new vi­o­lins are too loud, too ear-pierc­ing,’ Clau­dia Fritz told the New York Times. ‘This study shows that there is no truth be­hind it.’

Ms Mey­ers is un­likely to aban­don her newly-ac­quired Guarneri as a re­sult of all this. Af­ter all it’s work­ing for her just as hard as she’s work­ing for it. But for all those other vi­o­lin­ists who do not have un­known bene­fac­tors pre­sent­ing them with in­stru­ments cost­ing $US16 mil­lion it does pro­vide the re­as­sur­ing knowl­edge that one day, if they sit up straight and eat all their greens they can sound just as good as her.

OK, it’s time to come clean. Rais­ing this whole is­sue is an ex­cuse for me to tell one of my favourite jokes.

While clean­ing out his re­cently-de­ceased grand­fa­ther’s at­tic a guy dis­cov­ers an old vi­o­lin and a beau­ti­ful orig­i­nal paint­ing of wa­ter lilies. So he takes them down to his mate at Sothe­bys who promises to call him back with a val­u­a­tion. And when the guy gets the call the good news is that he has an orig­i­nal Monet and an orig­i­nal Stradi­vari.

‘The bad news,’ his mate tells him, ‘is that Monet was crap at mak­ing vi­o­lins.’

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