Stradivari unstrung? New violins fare better in blind test

A study nails the myth of the yawning gap between present instruments and those of the great masters

A Stradivarius violin. Photograph: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images

A Stradivarius violin. Photograph: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images


Most of us close our eyes from time to time in order to concentrate on a thought. Our minds are distractible.

Quite how distractible is something most of us don’t like to admit to. I’ll never forget reading, in Vance Packard’s 1957 classic, The Hidden Persuaders , how a group of people confused the taste of margarine and butter when the butter was white and the margarine a buttery yellow. Or, in the same book, a quotation from an anonymous advertising man who said: “People have a terrific loyalty to their brand of cigarette and yet in tests cannot tell it from other brands. They are smoking an image completely.”

I read just last week about Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Somerville College, Oxford, whose research has led him to conclude that “tableware, and the other non-consumable elements of the table setting, can all exert a significant effect on our perception of, and behaviour toward, food and drink.” How background colours influence the taste of wine is already in his sights.

So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to read about a group of 10 violinists having to wear “modified welders’ goggles” in “much-reduced ambient light” to prevent them being influenced by appearances when they were asked to select and try out a number of instruments. Their conclusions appear in a research paper, Soloist Evaluations of Six Old Italian and Six New Violins , recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US. It is research of the kind that’s guaranteed to garner column inches even in the tabloids.

Here’s the key section from the abstract: “In this study, 10 renowned soloists each blind-tested six Old Italian violins (including five by Stradivari) and six new during two sessions of one hour, 15 minutes – the first in a rehearsal room, the second in a 300-seat concert hall. When asked to choose a violin to replace their own for a hypothetical concert tour, six of the 10 soloists chose a new instrument. A single new violin was easily the most-preferred of the 12. On average, soloists rated their favourite new violins more highly than their favourite old for playability, articulation, and projection, and at least equal to old in terms of timbre. Soloists failed to distinguish new from old at better than chance levels.”

Is the great Antonio Stradivari turning in his grave? Are the values of his great instruments about to plummet? Well, no. But the point is well made that the immediate differences between old and new instruments are not quite of the order they’re often puffed up to be. And the conclusion is certainly a real fillip for modern instrument makers, whose trade is bound to benefit from the kind of publicity the research has been generating.

A short study is just that, however. The players were evaluating an instrument to use on a hypothetical tour. If they were planning to make a purchase, their evaluations would have been much longer and more involved. They certainly wouldn’t make a purchase without considerable external evaluation. They would want the feedback of friends and colleagues, audiences and critics. There is no point for a professional musician to appear in concert using an instrument that is a delight to the player but doesn’t have the same effect on other people. And both the price and potential price appreciation would be a factor if a purchase were involved.

There is also, of course, a level at which it is all utterly personal. What suits one person is never guaranteed to suit another. What the study does is nail pretty firmly the myth of the yawning gap between the instruments of the present and those of the great masters. What it doesn’t do is analyse what the player evaluations it measured might amount to in real life.

What might the 10 players make of their first choices in the test after six months of living with the instrument, day in, day out? What would happen if they took their favourite from the test on a six-week tour, and then did the blind test again? What would their listeners make of their choices? What would they themselves make of the instruments they favoured, if they were to witness the whole test as listeners, with others doing the playing?

The business of instrument comparison tends to focus attention away from the players, as used to happen when the Dublin International Piano Competition allowed its players a choice between Steinway pianos, and Kawais and, briefly, Yamahas. I used to get a lot of questions about the pianos, and a lot of complaints about the non-Steinway instruments. I had two stock responses. One was to ask about my questioners’ comparison between who they thought was the worst-sounding player on the Steinway and the best-sounding on the Kawai. And then I would ask if anyone would rather hear me play on the best piano in the world, or Liszt on a clapped-out old upright. I don’t need to tell you how the votes on that one went.

Rachel Kolly d’Alba
On the subject of violins and violinists, I think I woul

d be happy to hear Swiss violinist Rachel Kolly d’Alba, who has just finished a Music Network tour with pianist Christian Chamorel, on any kind of instrument. Kolly is a mesmerising weaver of musical lines. Predictable is the last thing she is. The reason she gets away with so much momentary shape-changing is that she has such a secure view of the larger spans. Not everything she does comes off cleanly. But there is a vision behind her approach that always keeps one fully engaged.

Her programme here was all French (the best-known sonatas by Fauré and Franck, Chausson’s Poème and Ravel’s Tzigane ) with Raymond Deane’s Petite Phrase providing an Irish-French connection. Deane’s stylistically polyglot short piece, sparked by the Vinteuil violin sonata of Proust’s imagination, responded particularly well to the effects of spontaneous narration that Kolly d’Alba conjured up. Chamorel was at all times a supportive partner.

Wilson’s brass tacks
The latest of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra’s Essential Classics programmes (NCH, Wednesday) found conductor John Wilson in thrusting form. It sounded at times in Tchaikovksy’s Sleeping Beauty Suite and Sibelius’s Finlandia as if he would have liked the brass to have had some kind of external contraption to allow for a turbo effect. The most intriguing performance, however, was of the Elgar Cello Concerto, in which soloist Richard Harwood followed an unusual, soft-spoken path.

Chamber Choir Ireland’s programme at Newman University Church on Friday included When We Were Children , a new work by David Lang that mulls over multiple translations of a biblical phrase without fully managing to mine its fascinating premise. Michael Gordon’s The Bird Watcher sounded like a kind of miscalculation, attempting to use voices in rhythmic ways that would be better served by instruments. The evening’s high points were performances of two works by the late John TavenerThe Lamb and Song for Athene – in which Hillier found just the right balance between sweetness and sharpness.

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