Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Strad fad?

The Indy this morning has the news that an anonymous bidder has just paid the second-highest price ever for a Stradivarius: £1.38m. And he thinks he got a bargain.

How do you buy one of these beauts if you're a musician? Mostly you don't. Otherwise, you beg, you borrow, you court wealthy people who collect the ruddy things, and if you are lucky enough to have one, you make sure you've got every piece of documentation under the sun to prove that what you have really is what you think you have, in case it isn't. It's a fiddly business, if you'll pardon the awful pun.

How expensive is a good fiddle? How long is a piece of string? How good is the performer? These are all infinitely variable. The violin used to be my 'second instrument' and once I had a friend who worked with a violin dealer in the West End. When I visited, he took down a violin from the wall and said 'have a go'. I played a couple of scales and adored it. It was the right size for me (smallish), had a beautiful sweet tone, had been made in Spain sometime in the late 18th century and cost £30,000. (We're talking 1989 here.) Then he took down another violin and said 'now try this one'. I didn't like it at all. It was loud, harsh, too big, I don't know what it was but it cost £60,000. I couldn't get my head around that.

The online auction house Tarisio held several days of viewing before its latest auction a few weeks back. They were selling a Nicolo Amati, and a fiddle-fanatic friend from the orchestra reported that it was absolutely gorgeous. For elaborate reasons I particularly wanted to see and hear a Nicolo Amati close to, so I grabbed my resident fiddler and took him off to Great Marlborough Street, where he began to play the Korngold concerto on the violin, which had a label inside saying Guarneri. The sound that came out was nothing short of heavenly: even, resonant, responsive, focused... Poor Tom turned green with longing.

This fiddle had an interesting history. It had been considered a Guarneri for most of its lifetime, but had been reassessed by Beare's and reidentified as an Amati; Guarneri having been apprenticed to Amati in Cremona, some confusion seemed not impossible. Moreover, it had belonged to the author of Le petit prince, Antoine de St Exupery. Romantique, n'est-ce pas?

It sold in the end for a figure in the region of £110,000. Compared to £1.38m, it doesn't sound much. But still way out of reach for most normal musicians.