Florian Leonhard talks with Jonathan Douglas on Hong Kong's Radio 4, presenting a 1718 Antonio Stradivari. Andrea Zanchetta plays it, and they compare it to a 1761 Nicolo Gagliano. The programme includes excerpts from Bach's Goldberg variations arranged by Dmitri Sitkovetsky for String Trio and performed by Julian Rachlin (violin), Nobuko Imai (viola) and Mischa Maisky (cello).
Florian Leonhard, restorer, maker and authenticator, is one of the world's leading experts in rare and fine stringed instruments. His London workshop and showroom exhibits some of the finest examples of violins, violas and cellos currently available for sale on the market. Today Florian acts as a specialist consultant to major financial institutions and also many of the world's leading solo artists, including Maxim Vengerov, Julian Rachlin, Lynn Harrell and Steven Isserlis.
The following interview was broadcast on Hong Kong's classical music station Radio Four. Florian took with him to the studio three precious 18th century instruments. The conversation leads finally to focus on a couple of them with the valuable help of one of Hong Kong's leading violinists Andrea Zanchetta, who will analyze them from a professional musician's point of view.
Florian Leonhard's Background
J- Mr. Leonhard, what is your background and how did you get into this field. We know you've learned the cello and recorder and so on as a child, but how did that develop in to this profession?
F- I don't usually call myself a musician because I was just a young child who was maybe gifted in music, and I played and practised cello every day, but I never intended to become a cellist. I was much better at painting and using my hands with things. I found that a lot less effort than practising the cello. I think that part of a gift is that you find it easy to achieve it and easy to practice.
J- So your 'forte' was to be a craftsman I suppose
F- Yes, exactly. I call violin making more of a very fine craft rather than an art. Many people refer to in as an art, but I think it is a very fine craft with an artistic element to it.
J- You've used the phrase, you 'fell in love with this craft’. Did that happen rather suddenly or was it over a period of time?
F- I think it wasn't so sudden but you see I was repairing things for my family. I was always Mr. Fix-it, either a clock, a lock or a bicycle, or later my parents’ car. I would always enjoy repairing everything and I remember one morning my mother's violin was lying on the table where we wanted to lay the breakfast. I started to look at the violin very intricately, and looked at its scroll and how beautifully it was carved and my father suddenly said, why don't you become a violin maker? And I said “you must be joking I'll study medicine”. So I intended to study medicine because I had grandfathers who were biologists and chemists. I was always reading a lot of chemistry, biology and medicine. But slowly it dawned on me that it is actually a wonderful thing to do. So in the next two years from the age of 16 to 18, I really fell in love with the idea of becoming a violin maker. And I'm very glad about my parents’ attitude, because they never tried to push my brother nor myself into what they thought their children should be doing and what society thought is the right thing to do: 'if you come from an intellectual background then you should study...' They always supported us wherever we went on our own and just invisibly had a helping hand in it. Later I can actually see that my character and my abilities that I have as a person, are ideally suited in the profession I'm doing today. One is my photographic memory for the authentication, my trained eye in looking at shapes, but also enjoying very much understanding the handwriting of different people. Whether they were composers or painters in museums, as a child I was always enjoying guessing and trying to understand each artist's character. A Michelangelo or a Rembrandt, seeing the differences of the schools behind that and to analyze that, so nobody told me as a child to do that. It was something that drove me and so I could apply this in my profession. The other thing was that as a craftsman I found it easy to achieve high skill and retrain until I was satisfied. My satisfaction level wasn’t a low one, so I always pushed myself and yet always had relaxed shoulders, which I found symbolized that you don’t find it too difficult to achieve it.
J-. So its a fascinating combination of different skills
F- I think the combination for me today is my interest in classical music since I was born. My parents always listened to classical music and until I turned 15 I wasn't interested in other music. Whenever I was turning the radio I would skip anything with a beat, I would continue searching until a classical music station turned up!
The importance of valuation
J- We have been talking previously about authentication. This is a sort of an art in itself is it? Presumably there is a problem - I don't know if that's a right word - in which fake violins are passed off as the real thing.
F- Unfortunately that has always been the case since violin making first existed. Not long after the first violins were made they were already faked, or tweaked, or labels were changed, it has always happened. The more expensive these instruments are the more you need authorities who double check whether these instruments are real, also whether the history that’s handed down to us about a certain instrument can be true, because very often it’s hearsay why something is that or that... So through studying those instruments intricately you can start to understand the handwriting of each maker and the different periods of a maker and the different models he used, different types of arching, but also the different schools behind that particular maker’s work. So that gives you an indication as to who has made it. Then you can look at the age of something. Of course a very modern instrument can be made to appear worn but even that leaves traces. So it's a bit like a criminal investigation. You look at details and hints that can lead you to understand whether something was faked.
J- It's almost like currency counterfeiting.
F- Yes, and it's like a sport to so many people. You know there are people who enjoy faking documents, or people who enjoy faking old letters that some people wrote to each other, to publish them later. So there need to be experts who understand that this is not true, because first of all it would distort the history, and they threaten to rip people off.
J- So this is a field that attracts a lot of unscrupulous individuals?
F- Oh yes, absolutely, and in the past the Far Eastern countries have suffered a bit from this because all the experts where sitting in London far away, when communication wasn't as good as it is today, it was much harder to refer quickly to somebody, over there to double check whatever they were offered is actually genuine.
J- But even when it comes to the real thing how easy is it to judge the value of a violin?
F- Nothing is easy, obviously. Once you understand something, let’s say about a violinist as well, if a violinist is really great he’ll very quickly learn a new piece and to understand what the piece or the composer wants to say and then to express that; and similarly in my profession as an authenticator you don't in the end find it so difficult any more to see (even though there’s a lot behind that, that you have to build up), and to find it easy enough to see whether something is 100, 200 or 300 years old, and which school is behind it. Let’s say for example in Italian violin making terms you have several centres of making. You have the North Italian Schools of Cremona, Mantua, Venice, Milano, and then you have slightly smaller centers like Parma; and you also have Rome and Florence, in Central Italy and then Naples in the South and of course Brescia which together with Cremona is one of the earliest development centers of violin making. Each school has its own particular style.
Stradivari, Guarneri and their secrets
J- There is a limited number of these instruments and that’s one of the things that makes them so precious I suppose.
F- That comes to a very good question. Because they are so precious and there is such a limited number the prices are a big issue, and that's why we need the authentication so much. Because if you pay millions for a Stradivari, you want to be sure that this piece of 'wood', that you purchase as an investor or as a syndicate that lends it to a player, is genuine, that you're not putting your money in something which is not worth what it is supposed to be. And sadly for the musicians they cannot buy their instruments themselves most of the time, it's usually as I said, syndicates, banks or high net-worth individuals who buy them like patrons, and provide a worthy artist with that instrument for a number of years. I'm actually forming a violin fund that will help top artists to borrow things like Stradivaris and Guarneris and Guadagninis and Bergonzis.
J- You have worked quite closely with a number of distinguished artists, haven't you?
F- Yes, whether that was a purchase or a restoration of a violin or making them sound good enough like for example with Maxim Vengerov who is a very good friend of mine, who is now dedicating his time more to conducting. I had to dismantle his Stradivari into all pieces and re-restore anything that was restored in the past on this violin for the past 280 years in order to make it an instrument that you can use all over the world. From a damp climate to a very dry or a tropical climate because he would be the typical soloist who travels all over the world every single day, always in a different continental climate. So this violin has to be so reliably adjusted and repaired in the cracks that you basically never have any incidents, because he could only come in for a service once a year! And that means that this violin has to last at least for one year without any little thing opening or any re-adjustments and so on. So he wants to be sure he can play, when he unpacks it from the case it has to sound the way he wants it to sound.
J- It's almost a contradiction that you have an instrument which is valuable because of its sensitivity and character; that would tend to make you feel that it might be quite fragile as well.
F- You have to think that this sculpture, if you want to compare it to them because the values are quite high, are only about 500g in weight, so you can imagine if you smash it then you break it. So it's in a certain sense very fragile but on the other hand quite healthy. It's incredible how strongly it is built. The violin is constructed with hard wood on the back, on the sides which are called ribs as well, and the scroll, and the soft wood on the front which is the table. The table is supposed to vibrate very quickly and instantaneously, and not give the player a hard time of response when he bows. Therefore it’s chosen to be very light but quite strong hard-wood which can still split if you hit it of course. That's why we have very nice cases, and musicians always put it in its case and transport it in this case where the climate doesn't change so quickly inside. So that means even if you live in a more damp climate like Hong Kong, if you transport it from one building to the next and both are in a similar way air conditioned then the violin doesn't suffer because the case is protecting for the transport time in between.
J- And the other is to leave it on a bus or in the taxi!
F- Yes of course and, although we always hear those stories, the beauty in this profession (and that's why insurance premiums are so low) is that very little happens. If something happens, it immediately hits the press and they will report that a violinist left a Stradivari at a taxi, and funny enough two days later it’s found, because somebody would return it kindly. It's very difficult to sell such an instrument for somebody and hence people rather return it to its owner. Also it’s heartbreaking to think that it's like somebody has lost his child. Because a violin has been protected and handled by a musician as though it was as precious as a child. You would never leave it somewhere on its own. And then one day if they don’t have their violin because they’re on holiday or something, they will still look around and say, "Where is my case? Is my case around?" and then they realize "Oh, today I have a day off".
16th century's microclimate behind the great violins
J- You're here in the studio with I think three very precious violins that you'll say a few words about and then Andrea Zanchetta will play. But what is the purpose of your trip to Hong Kong?
F- One reason was that a famous Bank approached me to talk to them about my violin Fund which I mentioned earlier. I personally always lend violins to players because I feel that need, and that’s still growing over here I think and that knowledge. When a player plays on a Stradivari or some equally great old Italian instrument its not just because it has a beautiful name. There is actually a reason for which players want to play such an instrument. It's because they respond very fast, they have so many colors, they resonate easily, when you give that information through your arm into the violin and through that string. It amplifies what you want to say and if a violin just does this so easily then the player will respond and say "That's what I want". So if he can choose, he will choose this kind of instrument. And it's very difficult today to replace with modern instruments what these old ones have, partly because of the choice of wood that we don’t seem to find today. The Alps that provided that great wood used to be ancient forests, millions of years old, and suddenly when men grew in numbers in Central Europe which was then the very strongly developing area of the world, that wood was used not only for violins but mainly for fire wood and as a building material. So these forests have been replanted many times, and today most of the wood that we find doesn't seem to have that lightness and at the same time that strength. So when a player wants to put information through the bow, through the string and the bridge and into the violin, and the vibrations don't respond as easily and as quickly that means more work for the player. And that work can make all the difference when you have to play a 45-minute violin concerto in front of an orchestra and a big audience. So the concentration is already enormously high for the player and if he has a less efficient instrument it gets even harder. And in the violin competitions – and I am sometimes a jury member in international competitions – I sit there and I see and listen to the players. When they work harder it’s very hard to distinguish whether the player is not so good or it’s just because of the violin. Since I'm always working with violins I can say when it’s the violin, but the audience wouldn’t know that and that's a disadvantage for the player, if he plays on not as easily responding or powerful a violin.
J- And this part of the world with a growing number of fantastically gifted young violin players and cellists, is a part of the world that interests you increasingly does it?
F- Oh absolutely, I'm thrilled to see the interest in classical music. What I'm really sad about is that there is maybe less strong interest in Europe and the U.S. But here the enthusiasm for classical music is enormous and I think it’s possibly out of a catching-up attitude. People realize that they haven't enjoyed this type of music and art form for a long time, because it takes a lot of education before you enjoy classical music. And that is quite a disadvantage. It's not a popular type of art. Pop music has an instant effect on people, but I would claim not as deep an effect as classical music. Therefore in the past classical music was a privilege reserved for higher society who mostly enjoyed classical music. But I cannot see any reason why it shouldn't spread wider if education in schools allows access to that music making.
J- Well you're here as I mentioned in the studio with three violins, three precious instruments. Are they very different? Is each of them representative of a maker, a family or a tradition ?
- Why such high prices?
F- Well, I took a choice of areas, price range and ages. So the oldest of all three here is an Antonio Stradivari made in 1718 during the Golden Era of this master who lived from 1644 until 1737.
J- He had a long life!
F- An incredibly long life, especially in those days when life expectancy was less than half of that. He was very productive as well, as we have around 650 surviving instruments of this master. The period between 1700 and 1722 is roughly what we refer to as his Golden Period. A 1718 violin as we have here is one of the very fine Golden Pieces.
J- So this is a priceless instrument – must be?
F- You could say this but there are limits to how much people would spend. We would say usually that you can get for an instrument what the market would pay. And that's quite interesting because people are not yet prepared to pay as much as for a Michelangelo statue of the similar size. That means there is still a lot of growth for violins. A Stradivari would maybe cost between 3 and 15 million dollars - not Hong Kong dollars, US dollars! - depending on the period, condition, whether all parts are original and so on.
J- So that's one of the three, presumably the most precious. Can you tell us a bit about the other one?
F- The other one is from South Italy, from Naples. It's a Nicolo Gagliano, whose instruments were for a long time not in such high esteem, until instruments like Stradivaris and Guadagninis pulled away from the bottom of the market. You could think that in financial terms the Stradivaris are the locomotives of the whole long train of instruments with names and makers behind it. So it’s pulling up and becoming more and more valuable because everybody would prefer to have a Stradivari and supply and demand rules make the Stradivari more and more expensive. Other makers would have to be discovered by players that cannot afford to pay that amount of money. That means that a pull of interest is always created for different instruments. Gagliano has improved in recent years enormously, I could say an average increase in value per annum of 12 to 15% not only because it offers a lot of sound for the money, but it is part of the old Italian School as it is a 1761 violin. So it has a considerable age and fine condition but of course it's much more affordable than a Stradivari.
J- So, it sounds like a good investment.
F- Absolutely. I think if you have 'only' a few hundreds of thousands (laughs) and not the millions for a Stradivari (it’s all relative), then it is definitely a good investment. And many musicians in fact use it as a pension! If you have bought a violin in 1965 for 1200 pounds which was maybe like 8000 dollars at that time you would have today an instrument that would probably cost something like a million dollars. So it's a good windfall for a musician who’s 70 or 75 years old who could sell it to a younger musician or a syndicate that supports that young player. Those syndicates enable a musician to slowly buy an instrument and finally become the owner which is a nice thing to do and a great help for his career.
J- Well, we have also in the studio, Hong Kong based violinist Andrea Zanchetta. Florian was talking there about how sensitive it is perhaps for a violinist to think about acquiring a fine violin partly for investment purposes. Do you have such a windfall?
Stradivari and Guarneri Benchmarking
A-Oh , I just bought a home in Hong Kong which is quite expensive (laughs). I own two Italian violins, not so good as the Stradivari of course, but in the future I would like to buy a better violin, perhaps not a Stradivari but something like a Gagliano, or something of the same time.
J- And Florian would be able perhaps to advise you?
A- Oh, yes.
J- Now , you have one the violins ready to play. Florian, can you just tell us which one it is?
F- Yes, this is an Antonio Stradivari made in 1718.
J- So, how does it feel from the point of view of a violinist to have an instrument like that in your lap?
A- It's very exciting because you can feel the violin respond very finely to all the little things you want to do. There are no impediments. Actually when I was young I was very skeptical about the Stradivari and thought that if you played well, any violin would work well. And then one day they lent me a Stradivari for a concert and from the first moment I played I felt like I was entering into another world. The violin seemed to play by itself. Many things which were very difficult for me to do before and I had needed to spend effort, were now very easy to come out and the sound was so good! Unbelievable! So from that day, I changed my mind and I understand that a violin like this helps the artist to deliver the message I’d spent so much time practising, and then a very good violin helps you to deliver the message in its better shape.
J- Well we're very interested to hear how this violin sounds in your hands. Would you be happy to play something for us?
A- Yes! I will play something by Bach. From Sonatas and Partitas by Bach.
J- Fantastic (the player plays)
J-Well , Andrea , thank you so much. So that was Bach.
A- That was Bach, from the partita in D minor, just the beginning of the Sarabande.
J- Do you feel as a violinist that a violin like this suits a certain area of repertoire, or does it benefit everything?
A- Actually, on this kind of instruments that are so good, you can play anything. Everything will sound good, and you can always find the right colour for every piece of music.
J- Would you say that maybe this is the best violin you've ever played?
A- Ah, yes, this together with another Stradivari I played in the past the "Milanolo".
J- So Florian you've said that this violin was made in 1718. Do you happen to know whose hands it has passed through?
F- It has passed through a few hands but not terribly exciting soloists. Many of the Stradivaris have been owned by amateurs who would enjoy to own a Stradivari and maybe lend it out to players. So quite often a player has maybe enjoyed it for two, five or ten years, during a loan period from a wealthy owner. But I'm not aware of who has played on this instrument.
J- You have the one which was made in 1761. Do you want (Andrea) to try that one as well?
A- Yes, of course!
J- Just to see how they can be compared
F- It's the Nicolo Gagliano Andrea plays the Gagliano
Player's point of view
J- Thank you very much indeed Andrea. Again from the point of view of the musician, how would you say this violin compares with the Stradivari?
A- Yeah, this has also an amazing sound quality, but I would say that Stradivari has a special sound, a very velvety, refined sound, that makes a bit of a magic sound. I don't know how to explain it! I think the Gagliano is more suitable for Baroque music. It has a crystal clear sound which would be very good for Baroque music.
J- The way you talk about Stradivari, it seems that - one hears from everybody - that there is something indefinable and magical about him. How would you talk about this mystery, this mystique?
F- I always try to tell people that there is no such thing as mystery in anything. For example in regard of the sound adjustments for me, as somebody who’s been consulted by a lot of people around the world to help them to adjust the sound of their instrument. It's just mechanics. It all has to just work. And what makes Stradivari seem so mystical, is that everything a Stradivari embodies is perfection in the right sense. Perfection not in a sense that it’s like a machine, but that the arching is done in an elegant way, it doesn't have too much channel, it's not to deeply, widely channeled, not too highly arched, it's chosen with wood that is not too narrow nor wide in grain and not too spongy. He has had the hand to just choose everything right, he has treated the wood with a ground that didn't make it too harsh or spongy nor soft, it has glistering overtones, it helps it to vibrate with long waves on the bottom. Stradivari just embodies the perfection in sound that we want to have. Of course I should mention Guarneri del Gesu is the other big violinmaker that we know of , but much smaller in numbers as we have only 135 (instruments) that we know of and roughly 150 possibly in the world, which are very little compared to the 650 Stradivari's including cellos and violas. Here (in Guarneri) we have a different taste but those two makers embody this kind of perfection in what they offer the player. And because it’s so difficult to find it becomes nearly mystical, like many things you can't explain.
J- Do you (Andrea) feel that playing those instruments, despite the fact you are going through a difficult period, moving to a new home, makes you want to organize your next recital?
A- Yes, of course, It's very exciting to play these violins, there is a kind of communication continuity between the instrument and the musician and so that makes playing a very deep experience.
J- Would you like to play a little bit on the Stradivari again? Maybe something longer?
F- Something in contrast to the baroque, something romantic
A- Maybe the beginning of Tsigane...
J-That was the Hong Kong based violinist Andrea Zanchetta, clearly enjoying himself, with a rare opportunity to play a very rare instrument, a 1718 Stradivari and the opening of Ravel's "Tsigane". Before that I was talking to Florian Leonhard who's one of the world's leading experts in fine and rare stringed instruments, when he was here in Hong Kong recently. That's just about all the time we have here at Art Beat. Next week I'll be talking to four other string instrumentalists, namely the members of the RTHK quartet. Until then, good bye.