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Philip Dukes plays Strad Archinto Viola

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Ben H makes a good point.

The musical and tonal roles of the viola in Qt. Orch. or Solo are very different, more so than violin.

Obviously one can't have a different viola for each gig, and most pros stick to one type of playing.

If you're Bashmet then you can use the same viola and fit into anything, but there are not many like him.

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Of hell, if you're Bashmet, you can also tell everybody else to mold themselves around you.

Not to disparage him in any way, by all accounts he is super casual and wonderful to work with. I know my old teacher, who did his grad work with him, has only praise for his person(his playing speaks for itself).

Of course, Bashmet also doesn't play a strad, and undoubtedly could if he wanted to.

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On the sound of a viola in a string quartet: even without accounting for period or composer, their is no consensus, really. It is viola, after all!

But it IS generally said that it needs to be a different voice than the violins or the cello. What that voice should be is where the puzzlement and arguing begins.

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Hi Ben,

I'm a novice at this. What is a viola supposed to sound like in a quartet? Is it a different sound than for a solo viola? Is a viola for an orchestra different?

Marty,

That's the million dollar question! I'm going to *try* and give you an answer...

From an entirely musical proposition, think of a quartet as vocal music. In effect there is relatively little difference between an alto and a soprano voice, but the tenor and bass have extremely different timbre. The same should really exist for the string quartet, and that's why composers tend to write a pretty independent line for the viola. If the viola sounds too much like a big violin, then you end up with "three-against-one", and likewise a little cello could even out the quartet (and be a little preferable), but won't allow for the tenor line to flourish. Viola jokes aside, the way that the tenor line links the treble and bass is in many cases the element of four-part writing that really gives its texture and cohesion. There's little surprise therefore that composers from Purcell and Bach, to Mozart and Beethoven, Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Haydn all chose to play viola in ensembles.

So, the perfect viola should speak well enough to hold its part, not be so different that it doesn't mould with the other instruments, not be a big violin or a little cello in terms of sound, and not so large that it becomes unplayable, and not be a Tertis model: The criteria are so selective that it becomes an almost impossible goal. I suppose it makes sense that Brescian violas are so interesting to players, simply because they are not Cremonese, and by nature have that contrast.

Good French Stradivari-Vuillaume inspired violas are extremely useful for proper Symphony Orchestra playing. A string player needs to be able to hear themselves over the rest of the orchestra, and the velvety tones of a good quartet instrument are too big a compromise when playing in a small section in a full-scale symphony orchestra.

Hope that helps - feel free to disagree... its not a subject that'll ever go away :)

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Makes sense Ben,

Based on its tone, what would be the best fit for Archinto in your estimation? Is it more suitable as a solo instrument, or would it be a better fit for quartet or orchestral playing?

My guess is that the Archinto / Medici / Spanish were all made for new-fangled "concertini" to contrast against the "ripieno" orchestra of the Concerto-grosso. This was a new concept in the 1690s. Torelli's 1690 "Concerto a Tre" was the very first publication of this musical form, and before then it was something being played about with by Corelli and Torrelli in a limited way through the 1690s. When Stradivari made the Medici instruments, it was just a bass and two violins, but the Medici requested two violas (including an anachronistic tenore) to complete the set. I think Stradivari made these violas entirely speculatively for aristocratic commissions, which is why so many of them fall into known "sets" with violins and celli. This may have been to keep the clients happy, or to charge for five rather than three instruments, but to the best of my knowledge, there are no concerto grosso that actually need a viola part (let alone a contralto and tenore). In all seriousness I think that the majority of Stradivari violas were made speculatively with no existing musical purpose in mind. But if they did have a musical purpose it would be as a concerto-soloist instrument. Unfortunately by the time that viola concertos were dreamed of, they arguably rely on a different timbre.

The 1679 Mahler is a very different matter. When the introduction of covered strings in the 1660s allowed for smaller instruments, and more versatile playing, I think that the Cremonese turned to Poplar (huge numbers of Rugeri cellos are poplar - perhaps the majority), because it helped to retain the voice otherwise found in larger instruments (not because it was cheap). Therefore, it seems that the Mahler is designed on similar concepts to Andrea Guarneri's work as near as possible to a "shortened tenore" rather than a contralto. I've never heard it played, but as a theoretical principle, it could be close to the "perfect" viola. Even the scruffy cello spruce on the front seems to be an effort to use every means possible to preserve an unviolinistic sound.

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it seems that the Mahler is designed on similar concepts to Andrea Guarneri's work as near as possible to a "shortened tenore" rather than a contralto. I've never heard it played, but as a theoretical principle, it could be close to the "perfect" viola. Even the scruffy cello spruce on the front seems to be an effort to use every means possible to preserve an unviolinistic sound.

Very interesting, indeed. True or not, I like the idea of reflecting on the reason for the coice of wood. What you say sounds very arguable.

I like the idea of Strad looking beyond the Amati stable for models - to the Guarneri shop, and why not.

Would you see any other Guarneri influences in his work more widely or just the viola?

On the Concerti Grossi question:

It might be more complex than you suggest - there are certainly Albinoni "Sonate a cinque" and Locatelli uses two viola parts in some of his Concerti -

just to mention two examples with which I am familiar. So there was a bit of experimentation with voicing happening already in tha era.

Perhaps the fact that things were in a state of flux explains what we see in Stradivari's work.

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Omonbono,

Much thanks! And yes indeed I do think that both questions may be more complex than an initial reading will make clear.

In the case for poplar backs, I/we have to be mindful that there does seem to be a hierarchy in Cremona in terms of supply of wood. When Stradivari makes violins in the 1660s and very early 1670s he is - to my mind - a pretty junior part of the Cremonese scene, and it seems indicative of his status that he might have only been "allowed" (one way or another) the bottom quality of wood: hence those amazingly knotted pieces of maple. We know from Vitali's deposition to the Duke of Modena that there was hierarchy of sorts with his allegation that a Rugeri could be a quarter of the price of an Amati - and obviously there were people coming to Cremona to find violins whose pockets stretched deeper than others. It always makes better business sense to supply at a range of price-points, and that seems to be exactly what the Cremonese collective were doing. If we completely convince ourselves of this (and I think it is convincing), then this has the danger of eclipsing other ideas about the tonal qualities of wood. The fact is that Poplar backed instruments really do look as if they were made as budget instruments, and so far as I know there isn't a single poplar Amati. However, poplar backs appear in Cremona concurrently with the introduction of covered strings and the emergence of more taxing bass violin repertoire. Making the cello smaller is an obvious compromise, and its logical that experimentation would have gone on to mitigate this. Hence I see a good argument for poplar being a tonal choice in the cellos of Rugeri and Stradivari (even if it was concurrently an economic choice). Its certainly interesting that this would have extended to the Mahler viola.

I'll only liken it to Andrea Guarneri's work in so far as both makers seem to be highly innovative about the viola right at this moment: Both finding their ways around a common problem.

As for Albinoni and Locatelli, of course - as soon as I opened my mouth, I knew someone would find the examples I knew nothing about! Life eh? - and thankyou! However certainly when Stradivari supplied a concertini of two violins and a bass violin to the Medici court in 1690, he was asked to supply two further violas to complete the set. Hence stradivari's idea of what a complete "concerto" of violins should be was at odds with the Medici expectation. Since that included the contralto which no one seems to have bothered to play, I've assumed that he was simply pandering to aristocratic - rather than musical tastes. But the concerto form was in a complete state of flux as it developed. Everything is possible: tongue-in-cheek maybe Albinoni enjoyed patronage of Cosimo Medici in 1701 precisely because he was willing to stick his neck out and write the infernal Strad violas into his works.

Best regards...

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Ben, Love your way of thinking through an issue.

And, probably, sometimes we will never know the answer for sure.

Fair bit of pear wood in Testore, is there not? .... for whatever reason economic or acoustic...

Someone was talking about Bashmet's viola earlier, and I believe he plays one.

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Thanks Omobono! :)

I don't know about pear wood, but Carlo Antonio Testore did make a habit of using poplar for his violas and painting flames onto them to simulate maple. I honestly don't know if its useful to add the Testore's into this discussion. The big use of pearwood (or fruitwood of any type - as it ages it is next to impossible to tell them apart) is in carved heads. The Stainer viola at Bromptons is a good example (Stainer or later german carved heads tend to be pear, though scrolls are maple), and fruitwood was used by English viol makers up to about 1650, but I don't know of its use in Italy, except for sixteenth-century Brescian instruments, and lions head Albanis, if Albani is Italian.

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On a related note - I wonder if there is a concious choice between field-maple (Oppio) and the ?dolomite? maple. I've certainly held maple from different sources where one billet seemed to be half the weight of another, and I presume that anything from a low altitude would have a lower density. Again, its a case of trying to unpick economics from acoustics, but the slab backs that Andrea Guarneri used for his violas appear to my eye to be very plain field-maple and consistently chosen as that. It follows on from the poplar idea that Andrea Guarneri was looking for the same material properties without moving away from maple.

I'm out of my depth on this - but there may be something in my wild speculation.

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Appart from the possible tonal and economic reasons, A.Guarneri may have just preffered to use those slab maple backs.

Much easier to make and finish a slab back than a deeply figured two piece back.

Could also have been a question of fashion, deep curly maple hasn't alwasy been the most coveted of appearances.

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Well, its weird - slab cut oppio seems to be his poison most of the time, and it seems that he didn't get the keys to the good-wood cupboard until into the 1670s (remarkably similar to Strad). The 1676 Conte Vitale is essentially made of bridge-wood and sticks out a mile, but there is a violin thats a twin to it, even down to the wide-grained spruce (Cozio 20251). But having spent far too long in my lunch-break mulling it over, I think I'm settling on the side of no real evidence to support my idea.

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Coming back to Strad's violas again. I know the Macdonald has been discussed elsewhere but I don't recall seeing this video posted here. I know Strads violas have been criticized but my goodness this one sounds nice to my ear - especially the Walton concerto part way through. The video shows off the varnish very nicely as well.

 

https://youtu.be/TxeCpFOkrto

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Coming back to Strad's violas again. I know the Macdonald has been discussed elsewhere but I don't recall seeing this video posted here. I know Strads violas have been criticized but my goodness this one sounds nice to my ear - especially the Walton concerto part way through. The video shows off the varnish very nicely as well.

 

https://youtu.be/TxeCpFOkrto

 

Thank You! I like Stradivaris violas also - great sound and beautiful visage. Very nice shots of varnish texture and archings on video!

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The five string is a brothers Amati, and not cut down whatsoever, although I don't think that there are any others of this particular proportions that are known. Its not a million miles from the brothers Amati viols that survive in the Ashmolean and Smithsonian museums. The head isn't brothers Amati, but equally interesting - its a Nicolo Amati from around the 1680s: Not completely unique either - the 1684 General Kyd by Stradivari was also originally for five strings, and matches the paper templates in the Stradivari museum in Cremona.

As for the Archinto - that model certainly inspires a lot of French violas from the nineteenth-century. Generally speaking things of that model sound like "big violins". It doesn't prevent them from having a beautiful sound, but they don't necessarily have the right sound to convey the composer's intentions in a string-quartet, which is why they can be both beautiful and useless at the same time!

 

Peter Schidloff used a Stradivari viola during his days with the Amadeus Quartet, did really a great job sitting in the mix of the string quartet.

 

Stradivari violas have their own distinctive sound, very different from the usual dark and deep viola tone but certainly a Strad viola con do the job.

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I don't know how accurate that color is, but it's stunning, just what you would imagine a Strad would look like in pristine condition. Color looks like Lady Blunt maybe?  I know del Gesu made some great fiddles, but I still believe Strad is in a class all by himself. 

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William Primrose used the McDonald in his recording of Berlioz Harold in Italy. 

 

Coming back to Strad's violas again. I know the Macdonald has been discussed elsewhere but I don't recall seeing this video posted here. I know Strads violas have been criticized but my goodness this one sounds nice to my ear - especially the Walton concerto part way through. The video shows off the varnish very nicely as well.

 

https://youtu.be/TxeCpFOkrto

 

Vengerov recording of the Walton viola concerto was done playing the Archinto Stradivari.

 

I also like Tabea Zimermann's Etienne Vatelot viola... made in the 80s and given to her as a prize, currently still uses that instrument as a first choice.

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