Slightly out of tune

David Murdoch on “Stradivarius”, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (until 11 August)


Stradivari, Piatigorsky cello, 1714

Within the last 30 years there has been a number of specialist exhibitions displaying celebrated violin makers’ work. A large exhibition of Antonio Stradivari’s instruments was held in Cremona in 1987. Now a more select group is being exhibited in Oxford, and most of them were not available for the 1987 exhibition. One important feature common to all the exhibits is that they are all in outstanding preservation, and, a large number come from Stradivari’s “Golden Years”, namely 1700-1720.

Recent painstaking research work by the Milan based violin maker Carlo Chiesa in the Cremonese archives has yielded important discoveries, such as the will that Stradivari drew up in 1729. This document gives us a further insight into Stradivari’s strong character, on top of his driven dedication to his work, evident in the innovative designs, superb choice of materials, and outstanding craftsmanship; these features leading in themselves to tonal qualities that were appreciated in Stradivari’s own lifetime (around 1644-1737) as well as for later celebrated players over the last two hundred years. Stradivari was an immensely successful instrument maker whose rich legacy both for future makers and players will last for hundreds more years, that is if his surviving instruments, especially those in this exhibition remain in their current preservation. The provenance of many instruments in this exhibition point to being owned by careful collectors, even a series of collectors. This means that so many features of Stradivari’s exquisitely tasteful making remain relatively undisturbed and unworn, in particular the edgework, corners and scroll, even the delicate varnish has not been excessively cleaned and retouched where there has been light use. Again, these characteristics are present in abundance on the instruments in the exhibition, giving pleasure to an already informed visitor wishing to increase their connoisseurship of this great maker, or a lay spectator merely to improve their eye for classical proportion. Charles Beare in his catalogue notes on the “Parke” violin of 1711, laments that the “Earl of Plymouth” of the same year has deteriorated considerably from its immaculate condition of 50 years ago, due to its sale to a major orchestra.

There are a number of weaknesses in the exhibition. One is that there is insufficient explanation as to the differences between the instruments. For example, two famous cellos both built on the “Forma B” model are exhibited, namely the “Bass of Spain” of 1713 and the “Piatigorsky” of 1714. Ostensibly the work will be very similar, but there will be differences in detail, but these differences are not mentioned either in the catalogue or in the showcases. A true connoisseur of Stradivari’s work is able to pinpoint the date of the work on stylistic grounds even without the presence of original labels. In the same way attention is rightly drawn to the wonderful quality of spruce Stradivari used in the table of the Piatigorsky cello, but there is no mention of how this quality is defined. An experienced maker will know, but not the average visitor – that same visitor will want to learn about wood quality, and its importance in instrument making.

Another weakness is the catalogue in which there are number of serious errors which should have been eliminated by careful proof-reading. I am informed that the compilation of the text was a last-minute rushed job, but why?

The exhibition has tried to break new ground with a moderate degree of success by providing recordings of some of the exhibits. Again there is little explanation for the differences between the instruments especially as Stradivari was developing his models, and how they worked, all within the development of string playing during his lifetime. This is a point where the public really do need to be educated. The paean of praise by the Canadian violinist, James Ehnes, in the catalogue for Stradivari’s quality of sound is laudable, but does not altogether hold water. There were other fine makers apart from Stradivari, both contemporary and later. The great maestro Nathan Milstein, a proud owner of a superb Stradivari, also had great affection for his Ansaldo Poggi violin made in Bologna in the 1930s.

Last, I do not understand why the exhibition uses the latinised version of Stradivari’s name which the maker solely used for his labels. “Stradivarius” has drifted into folklore, but Antonio Stradivari was born in Italy and spoke Italian.

Published Tue, 06 Aug 2013 09:45:00 GMT

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