New violins trump million-dollar Strads in blind test

Modern-day instrument makers emerge triumphant over master luthier Antonio Stradivari.

The results of an experiment comparing violins by contemporary makers with two Stradivari (c1700) and one Guarneri del Gesù (c1740) have shocked string players around the world.

The blind test, conducted at the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis with findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has yielded some surprising insights into the quality of modern violin craft and the way a performer values an instrument and rates its sound.

Claudia Fritz, an acoustics specialist at the University of Paris, worked with luthier Joseph Curtin and a team of researchers to gather 21 professional violinists for the study. Participants were given two tests: the first required them to play six violins and nominate the one they would like to take home. In the other, they played and compared pairs of violins, not having been told that one in each set was a valuable Italian rarity while the other was a new fiddle. 

Tests were conducted in a room with dimmed lights and a dry acoustic; players wore modified welding goggles and handled the instruments through a dividing curtain. The chin rest of each violin was scented with perfume to prevent the odour of the wood from giving the game up.

To the chagrin of antique instrument dealers everywhere, one of the Strads was the least preferred in the series of pairs. In the six-violin test only 8 out of 21 subjects chose an old instrument and one of the newer offerings came out on top as the most preferred.

Prized for their resonant tone and exquisite craftsmanship, Stradivariuses are among the most expensive instruments in the world; the priciest specimen auctioned last year in support of a Japanese tsunami fund, the "Lady Blunt", fetched AUD$15.4 million. Lest any of the world's leading soloists rush out to trade theirs in for a newer model, Fritz noted that "differences in taste among individual players, along with differences in playing qualities among individual instruments, appear more important than any general differences between new and old violins."

The Australian Chamber Orchestra's Satu Vänskä plays on a $1.79-million Stradivarius; Richard Tognetti on the 1743 "Carrodus" Guarneri.

For in-depth information on the history of Stradivarius violins, pick up a copy of the February issue of Limelight, on sale January 18.

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New violins trump million-dollar Strads in blind test
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