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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

No Strings Attached

By Norman Lebrecht / September 3, 2003

Matthew Trusler is a bright young British violinist who is getting talked about in all the right places. At 26, he is playing concertos with European orchestras and sonatas in some of the best festivals. On stage, he is refreshingly audacious. ‘It’s all a big risk,’ he grins, ‘so you may as well not play it too safe. Nobody wants to see a tightrope walker fall off, but they do like to see him wobble a bit.’ In a sector over-loaded with jet-lagged automatons, it is no wonder that Matt Trusler is being looked upon as, potentially, the next Kennedy.

There is only one impediment to his ascent. To make the grade, Matt needs a fine instrument. No problem, you might think. A good modern violin, modelled on the style of great craftsmen, costs around £7,000 and can be made to order. It sounds pretty good on a Wednesday night in a provincial town hall, but it won’t set the ears back at the level where Matt needs to compete. A German soloist, Antje Weithaas, recently played a 21st century violin at the Proms. She need hardly have announced its provenance; the Mozart she performed was duller than Danubian grey.

A player of character needs an instrument of matching calibre. The best violins, violas and cellos were, for reasons inexplicable, made in Cremona between the middle of the 17th and 18th centuries by Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri and their teacher, Nicolo Amati. A peak-period Strad, dated 1714-16 and formerly played by a famous soloists, fetches £4m in good condition. A low-pedigree 1726 model sold at Christie’s last winter for £608,750.

Next down the line, a good Guadagnini from Piacenza might cost £400,000. Even a decent imitation from a 19th century Paris atelier can set you back six figures. Few man-made commodities have risen in value on the scale of stringed instruments. Isaac Stern, the late American soloist, bought his first Strad in the late 1940s for $5,000. By 1961, it was worth $35,000. Today, it is worth 100 times more.

The boom has hit players at every rank of the profession. Forty years ago, a London orchestral musician could buy a Guadagnini for £1,000, about half his annual earnings. Today, the same instrument sells for quarter of a million, about eight times the average gross salary of an orchestral player. Charles Beare, the leading international dealer, warns that British orchestras are starting to suffer from playing inferior instruments.

The national stock is being depleted.. Of the 600s Strads in existence, 150 were in British hands at the end of the Second World War. Today there are just 40 left, and lesser brands are likewise following the big money abroad.

Other countries are better organised.. In Vienna, promising conservatory students are given instruments on loan from public museums. In the US, wealthy collectors lend their family heirlooms to rising performers. In Germany and Japan, banks buy Strads as a sound investment and allocate them to favoured peformers. Australia has a national instrument collection. Britain has nothing official of any such kind to help its future stars.

To experience Matt Trusler’s dilemma, I accompanied him as part of a BBC Radio 4 documentary to the Royal Academy of Music which has a magnificent archive of some 40 Cremona instruments, donated by past alumni and distributed to worthy talent. Clio Gould, leader of the Royal Philharmonic and the first woman to take front seat in any London symphony esemble, plays an RAH Strad with tremendous effect. ‘It has transformed my playing and my musical life,’ she confirms. ‘I see the others players’ jaws drop across the rehearsal room and I realise they have clocked my instrument.’

Sadly, there is nothing available for Matt. David Rattray, the RAM curator, is also a distinguished modern maker He asks Matt to test one of his new instruments alongside a Guadagnini. On both the original and the replica Matt extracts an exquisite noise, but he will not settle for less than the best. ‘A Strad comes into its own in a huge hall, with a great big pounding orchestra behind you,' he explains. 'That’s when it makes all the difference in the world not to have to batter out every note.’

So we head down to Beare’s, a short stroll through Bloomsbury, to see what's on offer. Charles Beare does not so much sell instruments as match them to a suitable recipient. He has three for Matt to compare - a Guadagnini, a violin made by Guarneri’s father, and a middle-period Strad. It is no contest. Playing the opening bars of the Tchaikovsky concerto, Matt reveals on the Strad a range of colours unattainable on a lesser fiddle. ‘How much?’ he asks. ‘’Well over £1m,’ sighs Beare. ‘One has to be apologetic about the price, but the maker was a genius.’

Thankfully, there is help at hand. Nigel Brown, a Cambridge financier, organises syndicates of investors to take a stake in a violin or cello on behalf of a good performer. Over 10 or 15 years, the successful player will buy the instrument back, chip by blue chip, rewarding the backers both with a high return on their capital and with the satisfaction of having launched an important career. Brown helped Nigel Kennedy to buy his first Strad, back in 1986. Kennedy described it as ‘a relief from having to hit my head against a brick wall' and his career took off.

Since then, Brown has helped more than a dozen British artists - among them Stephen Isserlis, Natalie Clein and Christopher Warren-Green to play and own the instrument of their dreams. He is confident of finding others who will set Matt Trusler on his way. ‘We have lost the art of patronage,’ complains Brown. ‘We must do something to keep Strads in this country,’ exhorts one of his investors.

So it looks like ending happily ever after. ‘It’s like marrying your childhood sweetheart,’ beams Matthew Trusler. ‘You know what’s in your case, you’re comfortable with it and you achieve a relationship with it over a very long time.’

One happy ending, however, does not resolve decades of negect. It is now tougher for string players to get ahead in Britain than almost anywhere else. The public authorities – Government, Arts Council – preoccupied with regional politics and multiculturalism, make no provision for procuring instruments. The banks, which happily blow £5m on a Robbie Williams gig, cannot be bothered to back a classical artist. It falls to the kindness of the Royal Academy of Music and the ingenuity of a Nigel Brown to save our violin tradition from extinction. If that is not a national scandal, I don’t know what is.

# BBC Radio 4’s A Sound Investment can be heard next Tuesday at 1.30pm

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001