August 1, 2023
The first performance with my “new” violin was at a Guarneri String Quartet concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My old friend the violinist Charles Avsharian came backstage afterward to say hello. “Is that Joe Roisman’s fiddle you’re playing on?” he asked.
I smiled. “Word seems to travel fast.”
Charlie looked at me blankly. “What word?”
I assumed he was play-acting. “The word that I just bought Roisman’s fiddle.”
Charlie shook his head. “I had no idea. But as I sat in the audience listening to you play, I thought that the dark and smoky sound could come out of only one violin—Roisman’s.”
Charlie was speaking about the violin’s sound, not my playing, but how do you separate the two? For better or worse, as new partners, the violin would have to deal with me and I with it. In the best of all possible worlds, that dark and smoky sound I loved so much would bring even more life to the music.
But who had made the instrument I’d just acquired? The violin’s certificates of authenticity told an uncertain story. In 1926, Emil Hauser, the Budapest’s original first violinist, had had the violin appraised by Otto Möckel in Berlin as a Guarneri del Gesù. But in 1932 Rembert Wurlitzer in New York City appraised it as an Angelo Bergonzi, and in 1946 Jay Freeman as a Nicolo Bergonzi. When Hauser retired from the Budapest, he sold the violin to Roisman, his replacement, but as what was anybody’s guess.
With such confusion, I took the violin to two of the reigning rare-instrument authorities, first Charles Beare in London and then Jacques Français in New York City. Charles told me that the violin, except for its scroll, was the work of the Cremonese master Lorenzo Storioni and that the instrument, probably made in the 1780s, had been originally a small viola, so small that Storioni himself or a later violin maker decided to cut it down to violin size. Charles pointed to the oversized f-holes, which made sense in this context, to the artfully shortened length, and to the place where the wood had been removed from the center to draw the sides closer together.
Several weeks later Jacques Français served up an identical conclusion, but in addition made me an offer I could not refuse. Jacques explained that he had a del Gesù violin without its original scroll, and that in his opinion I had an original del Gesù scroll without. . . . Here he stopped in mid-sentence. “Excuse me, mon ami.” Jacques disappeared into the back of his shop and emerged moments later with a small Storioni viola scroll, which matched my instrument astonishingly well in both color and proportion. He said that this was possibly the violin’s original scroll, separated for profit years earlier by an unscrupulous dealer working in what amounted to a violin chop shop. Scroll and violin, about to be rejoined in harmony, would be the story of Tristan and Isolde retold.
I was now in possession of a glorious instrument with an astonishing, transformative history. A viola turned into a violin sometime in the murky, distant past appealed to me not only for its exotic story, but also because I’ve always loved the sound of a viola. As an entering violin student at the Curtis Institute of Music, I was required to take a year of viola lessons, and was immediately seduced by the instrument. So many words describing my Lorenzo Storioni—dark, smoky, deep, burnished—were the same ones I might use to characterize a viola’s sound. It pleased me to know that something of its original soul still dwelled in this violin.
For the next months, one concert followed another, and I slowly began to learn how to relate to my new pal, “Lorenzo.” Whether performing Beethoven with our quartet or a Mozart concerto with orchestra, the violin presented options, sometimes breathtaking ones, that I’d not necessarily thought possible before. Why not make a more aggressive crescendo to heighten the drama here, a sweeter sound to touch the heart there, or dare to get lost in the mysterious darkness of the lower strings? Yes, Lorenzo could do that.
And there was a fringe benefit with this violin: I loved its unusual shape, the top’s burnished gold color, and the back’s wild grain with a rather brazen knothole improbably placed on one side. Lorenzo Storioni’s instruments had none of the elegance and refinement of the earlier Cremonese masters; instead, his was a bold and sweeping style devoid of ornate details, yet highly artistic and harmonious. Storioni returned again and again for inspiration to Guarneri del Gesù, who died three weeks before Storioni was born on November 10,1744. The fact that my violin bore a resemblance to and sounded quite like a del Gesù was a testament to the older master’s influence.
From 1975 until our quartet’s retirement in 2009, I almost always performed on the Storioni. My feeble joke was to tell people that I no longer had to practice quartet parts: the violin had already learned them with the Budapest Quartet. Together with an occasional performance as soloist and with other chamber musicians, Lorenzo and I appeared together on the concert stage a good four thousand times.
Several years ago I retired from performing. After a truly blessed career as a musician, advancing age told me that the time was right. But advanced age has an entirely different meaning for fine string instruments. While visiting the Hall of the Violins in Cremona, Italy, I played on an Andrea Amati violin made in 1566. It was one of twenty-four commissioned by the court of Charles IX of France, and one of only four that have survived. After all these years, the violin retained a powerful yet highly appealing sound that would easily fill any large concert hall. In comparison to the Amati, is my Storioni middle-aged? A young over-two-centuries old? Or has the violin the possibility of a seemingly endless future ahead of it?
Earlier this year I sold my Storioni. I could have continued playing the violin solely for my own enjoyment, but it seemed a pity for the instrument not to be in the hands of a younger person who might perform for the next generation of music lovers. Was the parting poignant? Yes, of course. I’ll miss the violin’s dark and rich sound that gave such pleasure to me and so many others. And I’ll miss the wild, swirling patterns of its back, with the improbable knothole that any other fine violin maker would have avoided. Almost fifty years have past since Joseph Roisman agreed to sell me his violin. But did he or I ever really own this precious instrument, or were we merely its grateful custodians?
The Storioni could have gone to all kinds of people—an orchestra musician, soloist, teacher, amateur, or collector—but I learned to my utter delight that the violin was purchased by someone who intends to lend it to a gifted violinist in a young and promising string quartet. In this way, Lorenzo Storioni’s remarkable string-quartet story, which began almost one hundred years ago with the Budapest Quartet and continued with the Guarneri Quartet, will endure for the foreseeable future in joyful four-part harmony.
Lucky you, Lorenzo.Brahms-Kreisler Hungarian Dance #17
Lorenzo Storioni, violin, Arnold Steinhardt, violinist, Lincoln Mayorga, pianist
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