James Ehnes rehearses for his performance at the Sheldonian Theatre, he is using violins from the Stradivarius exhibition at the Ashmolean.
James Ehnes rehearses for a demonstration-recital using violins from the exhibition

True or false? The quality of a Stradivarius violin stems from its combination of wood and varnish, the secret of which has yet to be uncovered. If a “Strad” is not played regularly, it loses its distinctive sound. Stradivarius instruments are the most expensive on the market because they are old and few have survived into the modern era.

Each of these statements is widely believed. None is true. But such is the mystique surrounding the life and legacy of Antonio Stradivari (c1644-1737) that his violins have taken on the aura of religious relics, creating all sorts of unsubstantiated legends. They have become so sought-after that their commodity value – up to £3.6m on the open market – is in danger of eclipsing their musical value, which cannot be similarly quantified.

Such issues are thrown into relief by Stradivarius, a groundbreaking exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. In addition to the three Stradivarius violins it owns, the Ashmolean has secured the loan of 13 others, as well as two cellos, a viola, a mandolin and a guitar – making this the biggest and most important show of the Italian craftsman’s work since he set up shop in Cremona in the late 17th century. Each instrument is housed in a glass stand, allowing 360-degree inspection. A separate gallery shows an impression of Stradivari’s workshop, displaying his original tools, wooden models and paper stencils, on loan from the Museo Stradivariano in Cremona, northern Italy.

The significance of the exhibition was underlined last weekend at a demonstration-recital in the Sheldonian Theatre by Canadian-American virtuoso James Ehnes, who played three of the violins, including one that had not been used since a brief public appearance two years ago. We heard the same opening solo of the Elgar Violin Concerto on all three, followed by each of the Prokofiev solo sonata’s three movements on a different instrument. Ehnes also played part of a Bach Partita and the Paganini Caprice No 24.

Differences between the instruments were subtle but palpable. The privately owned “Serdet” of 1666, usually on loan to Corina Belcea of the Belcea Quartet (and the earliest surviving Strad), was the most light and playful. The little-used “Parke” of 1711 and the “Marsick” of 1715 (Ehnes’s own) – both dating from Stradivari’s so-called “golden period” (c1700-1720), and named after a famous owner or player, as all the instruments are – had a darker, firmer, bigger sound, the “Marsick” coming across as the most conventionally lived-in. The qualities linking all three were projection and expressive colour – traits for which Stradivari’s instruments have historically been prized.

The ‘Kreisler’ Stradivarius violin of 1733
The ‘Kreisler’ Stradivarius violin of 1733

Or was this merely a case of believing what you want to believe? It might have been helpful if Ehnes had also played a non-Stradivarius, to probe whether the sound of a Strad is as distinctive as is commonly held. Recent blind tests, in which Stradivarius violins were heard alongside high-quality modern instruments, have fooled musical experts, and some of today’s virtuosi choose not to play a “Strad”. Gidon Kremer plays a 1641 Amati. Christian Tetzlaff swears by his modern German violin.

While the Ashmolean’s exhibition does much to enhance the aura of the 300-year Strad tradition, it does so, paradoxically, by clarifying and demystifying the Cremonese master’s craft. It underlines his perfectionism, showing how, over the course of a 70-year career, Stradivari constantly experimented with the shape and construction of his instruments, at one point choosing imported Balkan maple with a tiger-skin patina, at others reverting to cheaper, plainer, locally sourced wood. While using the same varnish as other violin makers, Stradivari put a premium on appearance, layering the wood with varnish to which he had added flame-like paint. Many of his patrons were wealthy music lovers, who liked the decorative niceties that distinguished his instruments visually.

Not a single Strad – not even the Ashmolean’s pristine “The Messiah” (1716), regarded by experts as one of the finest – survives in original condition: all had their bridges and necks altered or extended to suit musical demands in the 19th century, when music and the halls in which it was played called for a bigger sound. Far more Strads exist than the number of top virtuosi capable of getting the best out of them. About 500 are still in use, and another 100 survive in unplayable condition, giving a total of 600 – about half the number Stradivari is believed to have made.

“Playing a violin ensures it is kept in good order but it doesn’t improve or preserve it,” said Jon Whiteley, curator of the Ashmolean’s exhibition. “Like a vintage motor car, you have to maintain a Strad to keep it in working order, storing it in a stable humidity and temperature, watching out for cracks and making repairs when necessary. At least one [in this exhibition] used to be in tip-top condition. It’s now very worn.”

The commoditisation of Stradivarius violins is not a modern phenomenon. By the 1890s the prices they commanded were the stuff of newspaper headlines, thanks to eBay-style bidding wars between Victorian collectors, mostly UK-based, who stashed them away like Old Master paintings. Many of the instruments were not even “fitted up” for performance.

The exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
The exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

“There’s no such thing as a typical Stradivarius,” Whiteley explains. “They’re all slightly different. Even in old age he was trying to push the boundaries to create the perfect balance between carrying power and expressiveness. Others copied the style of his ‘golden period’ so that it became a convention.”

Whiteley says the Stradivarius debate has nothing to do with wood, varnish or age but revolves around a question players alone can answer: why is a Stradivarius different from an instrument that makes an identical sound? I put it to Ehnes, a self-confessed Stradivarius “nerd”, who has played no fewer than 93 Strads. He said that judging a violin strictly on the basis of its sound was missing the point. “Lots of violins sound good. The difference lies not in how they sound, but in the possibilities they give to the player. That’s where Stradivari was a genius. Even if you have a day or a week with a Strad, it’s not enough to discover what it can do for your imagination. That’s the most important thing.

“People don’t come to a concert to hear an instrument. They come to hear a performer, and a violin is a tool for a performer. If you have an instrument that makes you think, ‘What can I do here, what is the range of dynamic gradations and colour possibilities I can develop here?’, that’s the area where Stradivarius instruments are extra-special.”


‘Stradivarius’ at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until August 11 www.ashmolean.org

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