Stradivarius strung out: In blind test, soloists prefer newer violins to costly old ones
WASHINGTON — Ten world-class soloists put prized Stradivarius violins and new, cheaper instruments to a blind scientific test to determine which has the better sound. The results may seem off-key to musicians and collectors: The new violins won handily.
The top choice out of a dozen old and new violins was by far a new one. So was the second choice, according to a study released Monday.
“I was surprised that my top choice was new,” said American violinist Giora Schmidt, who lives in New York City.
“Studying music and violin in particular, it’s almost ingrained in your thinking that the most successful violinists on the concert stage have always played old Italian instruments,” he said.
Another participant, French soloist Solenne Paidassi, said “there’s a paranoia” about new instruments, compared to “a glamour about old instruments.”
The idea was to try to unlock “the secrets of Stradivari,” to figure out what makes the famed instruments so special, the study authors said. Their results are in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study attempts to quantify something that is inherently subjective and personal — the quality of an instrument, said authors Joseph Curtin, a Michigan violin maker and Claudia Fritz, a music acoustics researcher at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in France.
A few years earlier, the duo blind-tested violins in an Indianapolis hotel room, but this test was more controlled and comprehensive. The 10 violinists put the instruments through their paces in a rehearsal room and concert hall just outside Paris. They even played with an orchestra. The lights were dimmed and the musicians donned dark welder’s glasses.
The 10 violinists were asked to rate the instruments for sound, playability, and other criteria, and pick one that they would want to use on a concert tour.
Even Curtin who makes new violins for a living, said he was surprised by the results, adding the study was designed to eliminate bias in favour of either group of violins.
“I remember trying the old violins and the new violins among ourselves just before the testing got going and saying, ‘You know maybe the old ones will win’,” Curtin said.
But when the lights were turned down, all that could be judged was the sound. Some violins were 300 years old. Others days old.
The dozen violins together were worth about $50 million and the older, more expensive ones required special security, Fritz said.
After they had whittled down their choices, the soloists were asked whether the remaining instruments were old or new. The musicians got it wrong 33 times and right 31 times.
Canadian soloist Susanne Hou has been playing a rare $6 million 269-year-old Guarneri del Gesu violin and knows what she likes and what she doesn’t. A video of the 2012 experiment shows her playing some of the violins for only a few seconds, then holding the instrument out at arm’s length in apparent distaste.
But, like other participants, she was drawn to a certain unidentified violin. It was new.
“Whatever this is I would like to buy it,” she says on the video.
Schmidt, who normally plays a new violin with a little more down-to-Earth price tag of $30,000, liked the same one, calling it extraordinary.
“I said kiddingly to them I will write you a check for this fiddle right now,” he recalled in a telephone interview.
Curtin said the researchers won’t ever reveal which instruments were used to prevent conflict of interests or appear like a marketing campaign.
James Woodhouse, an expert on musical instruments at the University of Cambridge in England, wasn’t part of the study, but praised it as solid “and very tricky to carry out.”
Classic violins “are still very good, he wrote in an email. But on a level playing field, “the very best of the contemporary instruments stand up remarkably well in their company.“
Hou, whose four-year loan of the classic Italian violin has expired, is shopping for a new one this week. She wishes the researchers could tell her which one she picked in the experiment, but they won’t.
She said finding the right instrument is so personal: “There are certain things you can’t explain when you fall in love.”