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Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu
The Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu

It’s all over the news: In a recent study, Claudia Fritz of the Institut Jean le Rond d’Alembert in Paris asked 10 well known violinists to play six old Italian violins – five Stradivari and a Guarneri del Gesù – and six new violins.

Salon says the study "showed a general preference for new violins and that players were unable to reliably distinguish new violins from old."

"Violinists can’t tell new violins from old," USA Today trumpets.

The normally sober CBC posits that "new research suggests that Stradivarius violins may not deserve their legendary reputation."

Even the National Geographic gets breathless over this one, headlining their story "Stradivarius violins aren’t better than new ones."

What’s really going on here?

First of all, the study found that given a limited time with old and new violins – and not having been told which was which – a specific group of violinists showed some significant preference for two modern violins, and clearly disliked one historical Stradivarius violin. It also found that after playing an instrument for 30 seconds, musicians were able to identify it correctly as "old" or "new" only about half the time.

Note carefully how that statement compares with the headlines above.

Secondly, this study follows an earlier one which was widely criticized for its small sample size and its location – violinists were asked to play the instruments in a hotel room, not a concert hall. The study published yesterday (7 April) doubled the number of violins and gave the musicians a chance to play in a practice room and on a concert stage.

This study, unlike the previous one, identified the participants. This time the violinists evaluating the instruments were Olivier Charlier, Pierre Fouchenneret, Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, Ilya Kaler, Elmar Oliveira, Tatsuki Narita, Solenne Païdassi, Annick Roussin, Giora Schmidt, and Stéphane Tran Ngoc.

So far, so good. However, one thing doesn’t seem to have changed. Like the earlier study, this one tapped collectors for the loan of their valuable historical instruments.

This is a problem. Most collectors these days are investors, not musicians. They don’t play their violins, certainly not the way a working musician would. An instrument that isn’t played regularly will never be in top shape.

Furthermore, the researchers weren’t allowed to make any adjustments to the historical instruments. They couldn’t even change the strings. What professional musician would accept that restriction for the violin he or she plays daily?

As Steven Isserlis pointed out in discussing the earlier study in The Guardian‘s music blog, "A tiny movement of the sound-post – the little stick inside a string instrument that lies close to the bridge – can alter the tone completely. In Italian, this sound-post is called the ‘anima’ – the soul … players travel across continents to have their sound-posts moved a fraction of an inch.

"The shape, thickness and height of the bridge have to be right, too, in order for the instrument to vibrate freely. The strings have to be top quality. And then there’s the bow, which is almost as important as the instrument. Presumably the same bow was used for every violin in this test; but different bows react differently to the same instrument. It is the correct combination that matters most."

The Strads and Guarneri del Gesù in this study were effectively hobbled.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I suspect a classic case of confirmation bias in this study.

I can’t help thinking of something that audiophiles argue about endlessly. Thirty years on, they’re still debating the sonic differences between LPs and CDs.

They can bicker all they want. My ears tell me that the very best LPs played with the very best equipment beat out the best CDs.

Now, there’s a problem with this. I would put the number of truly sonically superlative LP titles in – perhaps – the hundreds. What’s more, the equipment you need to really hear them at their best can be absurdly expensive and frustratingly finickly. If the stylus is a bit dirty or worn, or the tonearm is slightly out of adjustment – forget it. (Sound familiar? Read Steven Isserlis’s comments above about the violin’s sound-post.)

I treasure the few acoustically stunning LPs I own. But the truth is that the music I genuinely love mostly isn’t on those LPs. It’s on CDs, and the average CD on my record shelf is head and shoulders above the average LP.

My guess – and mark well, I am not a violinist – is that something akin to this is at work in the violin world. The very best historical instruments, carefully maintained and well played, are probably close to unbeatable. But in the real world of harried touring, maybe – just maybe – a well made and finely configured modern instrument can hold its own.

If that be true, let’s celebrate! That’s really good news for many thousands of musicians – the ones who will never be able to spend a 7 or 8 figure sum for the tools of their trade.

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