NEW YORK — Fiddlers fall in love with fiddles, everyone knows that, but how long does it last? Overnight? For a season? Till death do them part?
In October, Nikolaj Znaider, one of the finest of our young latter-day Paganinis, visited the New York Philharmonic with the moody, seismic Sibelius Violin Concerto. Apart from the singular mesmerism of the performance, the event was on the face of it more or less business as usual: an A-list soloist and an A-list guest conductor -- Christoph von Dohnányi -- joining forces with an A-list orchestra in an acknowledged masterpiece. What passed beneath the radar was the fact that for the first time in this town, Mr. Znaider was playing a Guarneri del Gesù, the "Ex Kreisler" (1741), rather than his familiar Stradivari "Ex Liebig" (1704).
Giuseppe Guarneri, 1698-1744, was the last and greatest of the Guarneri family of violin makers, and the only rival to Antonio Stradivari, c. 1644-1737. Giuseppe identified his instruments with the cipher IHS, referring to Christ, hence his nickname.
The Strad Ex Liebig takes its name from a Viennese collector of long ago, the Guarneri from the violinist Fritz Kreisler, 1875-1962. An artist of effortless grace and vitality, he never took a lesson past the age of 12, bewitching audiences everywhere until he retired from concert life nearly 60 years ago. In Mr. Znaider's hands, Kreisler's Guarneri made extraordinary music, singing not so much from the strings as from the mysterious depths of the wood.
"Scientifically speaking, it's always the combination: the strings causing the wood to vibrate along with them," says Mr. Znaider, who plays Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 on tour with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra beginning tonight in Selinsgrove, Pa., with further stops in Omaha, Neb.; Buffalo, N.Y.; New York City (Carnegie Hall, Feb. 2); and Easton, Pa. Next, Mr. Znaider heads due north to Canada for the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra on Feb. 5 and 7. "The texture of the Guarneri isn't smooth on the surface, the way I often found it on my Strad. It has a texture that doesn't detract from its beauty but adds to its complexity. It has a lot of layers of sound you can peel away and modulate. Some violins have a sound that has no core. This one allows more nuance. To me, the sound is absolutely addictive. It's very sensual. Even after playing for hours and hours every day, I don't want to put it away. I've never had this experience with any other instrument."
Shades of Cleopatra in Shakespeare's immortal description:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.
"Yes," says Mr. Znaider, "it's true. The relationship between instrument and performer is like the sensual relationship of man and woman. Even the shape of a violin has something feminine about it. There's something aesthetic about its curves, something female. I don't know how it is for a woman playing the violin, but for a man, there's a whole symbiosis. The instrument isn't only yours to manipulate. It also has its own personality. You have to stroke it the right way. It has moods, induced by the temperature, by humidity. All those things have their effects on wood that's 300 years old. Maybe I'm romanticizing. But I believe it. You know that famous picture, with the f-holes on the woman's back?"
Yes indeed: Man Ray's classic photograph "Le Violon d'Ingres" (Ingres's Violin), a turbaned odalisque, nude yet discreet.
Born in Denmark to Polish-Israeli parents, Mr. Znaider, 32, put himself on the map in 1992, half his lifetime ago. That was the year he took first prize at the International Carl Nielsen Violin Competition in the Danish city of Odense. Five years later, in Brussels, he won the Queen Elizabeth Competition, arguably the most prestigious event of its kind. For a string player especially, a great career demands a great instrument, but prices in our time have skyrocketed well into seven figures, far beyond the means of many artists worthy to play them. Luckily for Mr. Znaider, the Nordic peoples have a distinguished history of fostering musical talent in their midst. Recognizing his need, the Velux Foundations and the Knud Højgaard Foundation, both of Denmark, stepped in.
"They couldn't donate an instrument to me as a private person," he explains. "Under their charters their gifts need to benefit society as a whole. So they gave the Ex Liebig and then the Ex Kreisler to the Royal Danish Theater to lend to me. And that is why I also have some limited teaching obligations at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, which I take upon myself with great joy and gratitude." Rather than conventional master classes, Mr. Znaider leads public workshops on chamber music, participating as a member of the ensemble in rehearsals and a final performance.
Back in the years when he was a student, Mr. Znaider played a variety of instruments. "I had my first full-size violin when I was 9 or 10," he says. "It was a German violin. I forget the name. Then I had different borrowed instruments -- one French, one a nice Italian. At 14, I was given a long-term loan of a good Guarneri, but not a del Gesù."
He has played unfamiliar instruments on many occasions. "The first time I played the Ex Kreisler, I had known it for all of an hour and a half. If I feel an affinity, I don't have any qualms. Once, in London, a violinmaker showed me a fine violin at five o'clock, and I said, why not take it on stage? The concert was at 7:30. Sometimes a string breaks and you have to take the concertmaster's violin. It happens all the time. For the audience it's a big drama. They love it, so you can't lose. But it's of no great importance or interest, any more than it is for a tennis player to break a string and change rackets."
After all his years and success with his Strad, what caused Mr. Znaider's recent divorce? "I think I wanted to create the right constellation," he answers. "I wasn't unhappy. But I wasn't settled enough not to be open to trying new instruments. I was not as convinced as I am now of the inevitability of this relationship. If you told me today that the Ex Kreisler is the violin I have to play for the rest of my life, I would be very grateful.
Looking back, Mr. Znaider confesses that he was always curious about other instruments. "I love to play the piano," he says. "Whenever I see one, it's like the mother ship calling. My sister played the cello and I borrowed it out of curiosity. I'm also very much at home on the viola. But I never doubted that the violin was my primary voice. My relationship to my instrument? It's monogamy with episodes of forced promiscuity -- those famous moments when a string breaks. In all walks of life there are different people. Among violinists, there are polygamists who have several instruments and enjoy switching. Anne-Sophie Mutter has two fine instruments. I think Itzhak Perlman also has two. Yehudi Menuhin had lots of violins and changed his main instrument regularly. Maybe there was an innate restlessness there -- or maybe he didn't ever find his real soul mate. Deep down, I'm a one-violin guy."