A recent study by an acoustics physicist from France’s National Center for Scientific Research has revealed that even a group professional violinists couldn’t, for the most part, tell the difference between modern violins and ones made by old Italian masters.
This information is pretty surprising, although I have my doubts about the way the study was conducted. (For example, the researches asked the violinists to rate the violins’ “projection,” which isn’t an easy thing to do when you lack the perspective of someone standing some distance away from you.) Even taking into account this peculiar requirement, I had trouble understanding how they couldn’t tell the difference.
You can hear the instruments online here at the NPR website. To me, it seems inconceivable not to pick up on the tremendous sweetness of tone that the Stradivari possesses, as opposed to the brasher, more forceful tone of the modern instrument.
The players, it must be pointed out, did have to wear welder’s goggles for the study, and the researchers disguised the distinctive scents of the instruments. But even so, the quality of an old Italian master is unmistakable. I haven’t had the privilege of owning a really good cello in my career, though I’ve been lucky to borrow several wonderful modern instruments. But having had the chance to play a Strad when I had a job at the instrument collections at the Royal Academy of Music during my student days, and having more recently tried some old Italian instruments at various dealers around the United States, I find it impossible that someone couldn’t tell a priceless old instrument from a modern one. I played a Grancino last year, and it didn’t just have an incredibly, gorgeously sweet tone, it made me play better. Even after I’d (reluctantly) given it back to the dealer, my fingers seemed to remember how it felt to play it, and my playing on my own cello actually improved. Now that’s the mark of a great instrument.