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JavierPortero

Stradivari violas

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For some reason Stradivari violas are not regarded as model instruments, 

Some fine players used Stradivari violas with success, some still do:

Peter Schidlof and the Mac Donald Stradivari viola

William Primrose and the Mac Donald Strad

Vengerov and the Archinto

Barshai and the Russian Strad viola

Antoine Tamestit and the Mahler Strad viola

Lech Antonio Uszynski playing the Gibson

The great Bruno Giuranna playing the Russian

Quartetto di Cremona with the Paganini viola

Maybe some more videos are out there, I think the violas sound great...

 

 

 

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A good part of the sound comes from the player.

The Strad viola model is very popular with Italian contemporary makers, but not all that popular with makers specialized in violas, that in general prefer Amati, Guarneri, Brecian models (Maggini, Gasparo da Salò) or a personal model. 

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Ciao Manfio, Why you think that happens? 

An the sound comes from the player I agree... The Mac Donald Strad sounded really different in the hands of Schidloff, David Carpenter and Yehudi Menuhin (Walton concerto).

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The viola is tuned an octave above the cello, so, ideally,  it should have half of the cello's sound box volume, but that would render the viola unplayble, it would be too big

So, as a viola maker, we have to make an instrument with a small sound box with good basses, and that is hard. 

The Strad viola model is very elegant, but perhaps too narrow, in general, today, makers will prefer a wider model, or Brescian archings to get better basses.

I made an article for the Philadelphia Viola Society some years ago, about viola making, here:

 

SOME IDEAS ABOUT VIOLA MAKING 

By Luis Claudio Manfio

When a luthier decides to make a violin, he has two basic models: Stradivari and Guarneri Del Gesù. But if the instrument is a viola it is not all that simple. First there is the question of size (from 15.5 to 18 inches), then the model, that can be Cremonese (Amati, Guarneri, Stradivari), Brescian (Gasparo da Salò, Maggini, Zanetto), Venetian (Busan), or personal. Depending on the choices of the maker the resulting viola can vary a lot in terms of sound, playability and appearance.Then comes the sound, dark or bright. All these possibilities will affect violist’s decisions when they are looking for a viola too.The viola is tuned one octave above the cello so, ideally, it should be half of the size of cello, but that would make it unplayable.

 

As a maker, my main idea is more making a tool for the musician than an art object; instruments are made for making music, so most of my energy goes to sound and playability.  Bearing that in mind, and being also a player, I try to avoid the most common problems associated with the viola: a too narrow dynamic range (you change your bowing and nothing happens in terms of volume and sound color), slow response, a dead C string, lack of clarity (notes will mingle in quick passages) and unfocused and hollow sound.

First, let us talk about the size. Playing comfort depends not only on the size but also on the string length, weight of the instrument, neck thickness and width, rib depth and how wide the sound box is, mainly in the upper bouts. There are many violists with injuries due to playing a big viola over the years. Fortunately, today there are many teachers that will warn their students about the risks of playing an oversized viola. Many players, when they are young, can handle a big viola but, as they get older, many of them will move to a smaller one. Playing conditions must have an influence too, if you play in the opera you may have to face up to six hours of playing, and that can be hard in a large viola even if you are a tall player with long arms. Most professional violists will move to a smaller viola that sounds good as soon as they have an opportunity to do so. I think we can see that today there is a trend towards small violas.  

 It was Michael Tree that advised me to become a viola maker some decades ago, and he loved big violas, so I made many  17 inch violas. They were very good, but hard to sell, since they required tall players.  So I started reducing the size, setting eventually in a 16 inch model that most players can handle. Sometimes I make also a 15.5 inch model for small players.

My main model is inspired in Andrea Guarneri, which I reduced to 40.7 cms. (16”), but with the lower and C bouts a bit wider, keeping the upper bouts as the original Andrea Guarneri (19.3 cm.). Too wide upper bouts make it difficult to stretch up to the higher positions.

 A smaller model is not only more comfortable but will also make playing difficult pieces easier.  It is good remembering how difficult viola auditions are today.  In order to make it light I use low density spruce and maple that is less dense. I make my scrolls 5% smaller than the original Andrea Guarneri and without shoulders, that is, violin type, and fit them with violin pegs (a Tertis idea). Necks don’t need to be thick and wide; they can add a lot of weight so I make them almost as thin and narrow as a violin neck. I try to make the blocks and linings smaller too, and with very light wood, I am always trying to take off some grams here and there and, eventually , it makes a huge difference for comfort playing. Long corners can look beautiful, but they may play havoc with bow clearance, so I make my viola corners on the short size.  Deep ribs can make the viola uncomfortable, not only under the neck root but also under the chin, so I make my ribs on the shallow side, at 37 mm in the endpin and 34 on the neck root. Too deep ribs may make the sound hollow and unfocused too.  Good C bout widths coupled with f holes that are not too close are good for the basses.  I make my f holes parallel, that helps creating a long and wide platform in the top that helps resonance. 

 

I follow Renè Morel’s ideas about string and neck length, 15 cm. for the neck and a comfortable string length of 375 mm. Most of my players like to produce a big sound so, following Zukerman’s advice, I make my plates on the thick side, backs are from 3 to 7 mm. thick, and tops are 3. mm thick that, coupled with a relatively massive bass bar, helps producing an instrument with few or almost no wolves or rasped notes. I try to make a viola that sounds good also in the 7th position of the C string, a very difficult region in sound production that is used a lot by top players.

 

The use of thicker graduations also prevents that the viola will not choke when the instrument is played fortissimo with the bow near the bridge. When I draw my bow from the end of the fingerboard towards the bridge increasing the bow weight I want a dramatic difference in volume and color to be heard,  without that it is very hard to interpret music. Just think about the flexibility of a contralto opera singer, that’s what we want from a good viola.

For sound colour I like a dark, but focused sound, that can also be edgy when you want it. Violas are unmerciful with makers, if you make something wrong the resulting instrument will not sound good. So I do prefer focusing to the same model and size, keeping precise notes about the wood used, weight and tap tones of the tops and backs in order to get consistent results. 

A good thing about being a viola maker is that you can count with a helpful viola community. Most players, principals, soloists and teachers are always willing to test drive your instruments and give their opinion on them. Whenever I meet a very good player I ask, “what can I do better?”.

Today’s violists are lucky to count on some makers specialized in violas that are constantly exchanging information, it is a relatively new thing that makes the life of viola players much easier.  

 

 

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On 9/7/2019 at 6:54 PM, JavierPortero said:

For some reason Stradivari violas are not regarded as model instruments, 

Point of view started by the Hills and repeated over and over perhaps? 

I've made a couple of violas on the Strad CV form (baroque and modern) that have turned out quite well from a tonal perspective. 

The Mahler looks interesting too - there is a new and wonderful recording from Tamestit playing transcriptions of the Bach Gamba sonatas. Sounds wonderful 

 

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IMO this is one of the common misconceptions in the violin (viola) world. Its so deeply ingrained that we don't even believe our own ears.

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2 hours ago, Urban Luthier said:

Point of view started by the Hills and repeated over and over perhaps? 

I've made a couple of violas on the Strad CV form (baroque and modern) that have turned out quite well from a tonal perspective. 

The Mahler looks interesting too - there is a new and wonderful recording from Tamestit playing transcriptions of the Bach Gamba sonatas. Sounds wonderful 

 

As a player I really like Strad violas, the sound really cuts, they are confortable to play and In my experience with the model they work in a quartet context. 

 

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The rap on them is that their voices are beautiful but they can't be pushed/coaxed beyond about mezzo forte without choking.

 Primrose, though listed as playing the MacDonald Strad, habitually played a Joseph filius labeled Andrea Guarneri.

Trampler's was, if I recall, an Andrea Amati. Zukerman's (for a time, at least) a DaSalo.

Soloists who could afford Strads avoid them, it seems.

FWIW

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1 hour ago, A432 said:

The rap on them is that their voices are beautiful but they can't be pushed/coaxed beyond about mezzo forte without choking.

 Primrose, though listed as playing the MacDonald Strad, habitually played a Joseph filius labeled Andrea Guarneri.

Trampler's was, if I recall, an Andrea Amati. Zukerman's (for a time, at least) a DaSalo.

  ( ... )

I do enjoy the proportioned Strad patterns, for myself and have a few different sizes, but many do sound whiny and lightweight in the presence of other instruments. My main viola is Venician-inspired model and that is what most want used, as it voices both as a cello and a violin. It is sensitive to bows and generally dislikes the stiffer bows. It prefers a slower slip, so a slightly softer, grippier bow produces the best sound. Smaller Andrea and Brothers Amati copies are also purchased when available - as they tend to be safe student instruments. For myself, i have not found a Brescian model that i have liked. But Ideally, I am saving for a Borman viola with long f-holes. Would like to try one long term.

It was listed on the back of an older LP that Trampler, if i remember correctly, played a longer Brescian model at least on that LP. I would have loved to have heard Ms Lillian Fuchs on her viola when she was still alive. Toby Appel playing Maestro Rabut's instrument... a very natural pairing. Not distracting at all.

 

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Violas from A.Stradivari´s workshop are really beauty!

Thanks for photos - have you more photos of Tenor Medici? (I am interested in varnish of this viola on last days - most important Strad in this case)

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3 hours ago, A432 said:

Soloists who could afford Strads avoid them, it seems.

I don't believe there are any soloists around today that could afford a Strad Viola. Peter Schidlof seem to do just fine on the MacDonald and (although he had troubles to begin with) Antoine Tamesit sounds just fantastic with the Mahler.

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1 hour ago, Húslař said:

Violas from A.Stradivari´s workshop are really beauty!

Thanks for photos - have you more photos of Tenor Medici? (I am interested in varnish of this viola on last days - most important Strad in this case)

stunning to see it in person (but you have to go to Florence and skip by the David ;) Good photos in the B&G strad varnish book and the S&Z Tuscan violin book

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I listened to some of the links, but the Bach stuff doesn't do anything for me; so I looked for something else and found some Walton.  It sounded good, Mac Sabbah.  Wondered what he plays.  A viola made in 1951 in Chicago.  Found a picture of it; upside down.  Flipped the Gibson over upside down, and we see the pattern that Leroy F. Geiger used to make that viola.   So even 70 years ago in the US, makers made Strad style violas. 

I see that the Tuscan Medici looks the same; both have more tapered f holes.  They seem to fit in better; at least with that narrow waist.  Viola posters are a very rare thing. I just work off pictures when I find one I like.  But I haven't made any in a while.  One like a viola d'amore would be cool.  It wouldn't be skinny.

Where did the Mahler poster come from?  Oh, it's new.  412 long and made of poplar?  I just looked for wood the other day, and looked at poplar, but only found some greenish slab wood. Not a big fan of slab poplar. It was big enough for an arch top guitar, but not a cello.  I like the look of quartered poplar, very nice maple-like cross rays? but you never see 5-6 inch wide boards of quartered poplar, or ANY quartered poplar.  I guess that it is too cheap to fuss over.

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On 9/9/2019 at 11:54 AM, deans said:

IMO this is one of the common misconceptions in the violin (viola) world. Its so deeply ingrained that we don't even believe our own ears.

Some notions are so deeply ingrained in the stringed instrument world, that it's close-to-impossible to form a completely independent opinion.

That's why I think that the blind and double-blind testing have so much value.

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I don't believe there are any soloists around today that could afford a Strad Viola.

Today, true. But in the era of Primrose, Trampler, Fuchs, Kroyt et al., they could have. And (significantly, IMO), they didn't.

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