Vino and the Violin

What makes a great one? The answers are revealing
Aug 7, 2015

Wine and violins would seem to have little in common, except that classic examples of both have a reputation for getting better with age. Collectors are willing to pay thousands of dollars for a single bottle of well-aged Pétrus or Romanée-Conti, and millions for a violin made by either Antonio Stradivari or Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri.

Stradivari and Guarneri made their instruments in early 18th century Cremona, Italy. They are played today by the world's greatest violinists.

Parallels with wine came to mind as I listened to Robert McDuffie, who plays the 1735 Guarneri "Landenberg," compare notes with Elizabeth Pitcairn, who plays the 1721 Stradivari "Red Mendelssohn" (the model for the 1999 film Red Violin), on the relative merits of their violins. The discussion, moderated by Aspen Music Festival president Alan Fletcher, cast doubts on several scientific papers that say experts can't tell a Stradivari from less celebrated instruments.

Sound familiar? Widely quoted studies purport to show that tasters can't distinguish expensive wines from plonk. Those of us who evaluate wine think otherwise. A sort of "blind tasting" of violins brought the reasons into better focus for me.

We could compare six violins. McDuffie knew which one he was playing but we in the audience did not. He played scales, some low notes, high notes and a few snatches of the Tchaikovsky concerto before moving on to the next. It was not difficult to discern differences, though they were subtle. Some instruments seemed brighter at the top, others richer on the lower notes. Some spoke more clearly. Asked to vote on which were the big-time fiddles, however, the audience divided evenly.

McDuffie and Pitcairn concurred on one important reason neither we nor experts could identify the great violins quickly: A great violin shows its full character only if heard from the back row of a large auditorium, such as the top balcony of Carnegie Hall. The published studies used a hotel room and a small concert hall, and we were in a room seating 150.

Joan Balter, who builds and maintains violins for virtuosos and students alike, told me: "Everything sounds happy in the front row. Great violins sound great from anywhere."

Balter provided three of the violins McDuffie tested—French and Italian violins from the 19th century, and one built by Thomas Oliver Croen in Berkeley, Calif., in 1990. (This was one of my three favorites, along with the two 18th century instruments. It had even, clear sound from top to bottom.)

She also noted that neither Stradivari nor Guarneri would recognize their violins' sound today. Over the centuries repairs have strengthened the internal structure, lengthened fingerboards and revised bridges so violins can accommodate metal strings tuned as much as a half-tone higher than those instruments were built to play. The result is brighter, louder and more present sound, which is what we expect today.

That also sounds familiar. Winegrowers today understand vineyard techniques, temperature control, barrels and bottling practices better than their forebears of 50 to 150 years ago, and make wines with more presence and flavor.

Are the great violins played by today’s virtuosos like modern-day wines? A corner of the music world prefers 18th and 19th century music played on violins with gut strings tuned to a lower pitch, on the premise that it’s our best approximation of what the composer might have heard. It might sound nasal to us, but it's perfectly valid.

Maybe wine lovers who pine for older, quieter styles are simply tuned to a different era.

Musicians / Singers

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