Violin Tone Evaluations
Review of violins by named makers
As a part of my business I spend a good deal of time at auctions and in violin shops, and I make a point of playing every violin which is in playable condition. I’ve got into the habit of writing down basic observations about violin tone. I started collecting this information just for myself – as a way of building up a picture of the tonal qualities of violins made by different makers. I decided to put it on the website because it challenges all the received wisdom about what’s a “good violin”.
|KEY to tonal ratings|
|Not worth rating|
Criteria for Violin Tone Evaluations
I have to point out that many of the instruments one meets in auction rooms are poorly set up, the strings can be old, and sometimes there are other problems. But I take these factors into account – I make a judgment about how far off its ideal set-up any particular instrument might be. And if the set-up looks good, I assume that minor changes won’t essentially alter its character.
I try to play the instruments before looking at the label, the catalogue, or the estimate, so that I’m not prejudiced by the price tag – sometimes this isn’t possible (for instance Tarisio arranges its instruments according to value), but often I have a friend or colleague who holds the catalogue and keeps that information to him/herself!
I should also point out that my idea of good tone is subjective, but I do have consistent criteria and they are by and large the same as any professional player's. A great violin is one you find yourself making great music on!
I suppose the constituent parts are generally (and not in order of importance):
- The absence of irregularity or nasty artefacts that have to be played around
- Complexity and abundance of good high harmonics throughout the register (often discussed in terms of projection)
- Volume in all parts of the register
- Sustain or continuity of response
- Plenty of information making its way to the player's body (resonance)
With a good violin the tone doesn't seem to come from anywhere in particular, you feel yourself to be part of it and it to be part of you, and the sound occupies the space you're playing in. I'd say the greatest testament to a good violin is that you forget about it – same with bows. With both violins and bows, a good tool immediately opens up the possibility of better musical ideas & forms of expression. I suppose this comes down to a general rather nebulous quality of "responsiveness".
As for determining whether one instrument is superior to another, it comes down to the quality of relaxation I experience when playing the instrument. The more relaxed you feel, the more you can communicate.
I confess to some idiosyncrasies - I'm not overly bothered about
sonorous G strings, I like very loud violins, and I'm very fond of
Most experienced players with some technique share these ideas/ideals. Learners have a rather different agenda, as good articulate response is often the last thing they want!
Here's a really good account of tone/playability by someone who's handled a lot of the best instruments in the world, Michael Darnton. He seems to define it in exactly the way I do, though he claims only early Cremonese violins have these qualities!
"Great violins ...
- Respond instantly. Each note starts quickly and cleanly, without any initial noise at all (not even an icy harshness), with almost an initial pop. In quick passages each note stands out individually, not smeared into the others, even in slurred passages. It's difficult or nearly impossible to make a bad attack – what you hear in the audience is an unusual cleanliness to the beginning of each note and separation from the previous one (which stops sounding instantly without lingering into the next note), and that's something that's particularly easy for a listener to catch, once you tune your ear to it. It's also a major contributor to higher playing quality in a player, since he doesn't have to spend energy making sure all his attacks are just right to compensate for the violin's own lack of good temper. When I was selling violins on a daily basis players would use the same several pieces for testing, and I grew accustomed to internally cringing in anticipation of several specific notes in each piece that seemed universally difficult to execute cleanly and beautifully. Not a problem for a great violin, though, which would sail through those notes perfectly. (One of the problems with listening tests is that a good player will automatically compensate for those notes, which are the same ones every time, and you'll never know how bad a violin really is – that's why someone like Kreisler could play on anything and make it sound great.)
- Lack dissonance. Every note is clear and clean, internally (the harmonics) in tune and smooth, without anything dirty or extraneous. That's also something listeners can pick up, though it's harder – it's a little like hearing an in-tune piano vs an out-of-tune one (where one of each of the three strings that make a note is slightly out), but much less obvious.
- Have presence. This is the hardest thing to hear. It expresses itself in the violin "appearing" to the ear to take up a lot of stage territory, and it can be slightly difficult to pinpoint the exact location of the violin. A side component of this is a particularly enveloping beauty of tone that's very subtle and difficult to characterize. I have heard a lot of nice violins, but I have *never* heard a violin that wasn't Cremonese that did this last thing, and this is also the most difficult aspect to hear.
- Can be heard. This is not ear-painful volume, which may or may
not carry; it's genuine carrying power: the ability to stand out
against a number of other instruments. Generally raw, dissonant,
or bright violins may appear to have more volume, but against
other instruments, tonal purity and higher output in a particular
small band of harmonics around 2500hz wins, even though the violin
may seem inadequate or even veiled on its own. I don't much like listening to recordings of violins for the
purpose of listening to the violin itself. I rarely get an
impression from a recording that's even vaguely similar to the real
Michael Darnton, originally posted on a Maestronet forum.