oct 9

Del Gesu: a first encounter

This post originally appeared on the ‘fiddlefish.com’ blog. It’s here for archival purposes only.

A friend I met on tour this Spring, Fatima, is a violinist in the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO). I think I had heard about this orchestra’s incredible instrument collection previously, but nonetheless, I went on to learn that this ’golden age’ collection, the largest in the world, is still in existence right here in good ol’ NJ, USA.

And what a collection it is. The collection is comprised of countless violins by Strad and Del Gesu, among others by Testore and Ruggieri. Not unlike Albert C. Barnes’ collection of fine post-impressionist art, the collection of violins, violas and celli that New Jersey native Herbert R. Axelrod amassed, is equally astounding. Axelrod, with his tropical fish and pet-book empire, positioned himself to begin collecting fine stringed instruments in the 1970s. In 2003, he sold around thirty fine instruments to NJSO for a gouged price of 18 milliion dollars. And although certain financial scandals have surfaced in the years that followed surrounding the collection, today, the NJSO still has the largest collection of fine Cremonese instruments.

As a fringe benefit, NJSO players are fortunate to have the collection at their fingertips. Fatima has blown through several violins already. Strads, Del Gesus; a 1732 Del Gesu is her current companion. Some of Axelrod’s instrument authenticities have been contested in the last few years (these accusations occur quite frequently among stuffy violin collectors and experts), but Fatima’s fiddle has the paperwork and provenance to dismiss all doubt that the maker of her violin was non other than Guarneri del Gesu.

I have never seen a Del Gesu up close in person before — let alone played on one — so this was one very special day. Visually, the violin was piercing; it had aesthetic qualities of a weapon! So functional: technically-perfect workmanship; aggressive lines; Del Gesu resisting all temptation to force beauty. The varnishing yielded a mirror-like force-field; the color beneath was earthly and dark. Supple; threatening; lean-and-mean; erotic; perfect.

One can sometimes forget that fine violins are not just to gawk at. They actually sound pretty good, too. A few passages of Bach, Ysaye, and Kreisler revealed a lush, sublime, yet wistful quality; It really encompassed something sorrowful. Like magic, I was spell-bound and my playing was ensnared by this violin. Del Gesus are know for their larger-than-life powerhouse sound. But turning up the gas and playing with concerto-like bravado seemed abusive. Rather, it was better just to explore the melancholy of this violin.

Del Gesu’s are as special as they come. There are 135 of them left in existence, compared to 650 Strad instruments. And only one Del Gesu cello, so I have been told. Currently, their market value is upwards of 10 million dollars. Incredible.