Joshua Bell Tells About His New Fiddle

Violin star dishes about purchase of the ex-Huberman Strad

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For 33-year-old fiddler Joshua Bell, life is imitating art with startling fidelity. After playing the soundtrack of the Oscar-award film The Red Violin, in August he bought his own red violin, the “ex-Huberman Strad” from 1713, noted for its lovely sound and what Bell calls a “deep red varnish—it looks like the red violin!”

For what he says is “between three and four million dollars, but closer to three,” Bell bought the violin from the distinguished former leader of the Amadeus Quartet, Norbert Brainin, who had picked it up in the 1980s—after the Amadeus Quartet had dissolved—when it was recovered following a deathbed confession by a cafe musician who had stolen it from Huberman’s Carnegie Hall dressing room in the 1930s.

This miraculous recovery is matched by the instrument’s qualities, says Bell: “I felt I could do things effortlessly with an orchestra that I couldn’t do before. Its sound has a ringing overtone and glow to it; I’ve never found an instrument with this kind of balance—a rich G string but sweet upper register.”

A week after acquiring the instrument, Bell used it for recording the soundtrack music to an upcoming Miramax film, Iris, starring Dame Judi Dench, finding in it “many more colors that inspire the imagination” than his previous fiddle, the so-called “Tom Taylor” Strad, from 1732. He still uses the same bow, a 1790s Tourte bow acquired from the widow of noted fiddler Samuel Dushkin.

Bell explains, “In acquiring this violin, I had to sell my other one on short notice, and it was quite stressful. I ran into the young violinist Mark Steinberg of the Brentano String Quartet a couple of weeks before my deadline to pay off the new instrument. He tried my Tom Taylor and instantly fell in love with it, and found a sponsor to buy the instrument and let him use it.”

Both Steinberg and Bell were students of the legendary Josef Gingold at Indiana University, and Bell recalls, “I grew up listening to Gingold’s 1683 Strad, a little less powerful than later periods but incredibly sweet. Gingold’s whole approach was to bring you in to his playing, an intimate way of playing, not the belting, powerful way. I’ve always considered myself a Strad player . . . I like using lots of bow to play very soft and lightly and feel [the music] project to the back of hall.”

For players who cannot afford such instruments, Bell notes that some musical societies lend great instruments to gifted young players—a generous gesture he benefited from early on—while others like fiddler Christian Tetzlaff and violist Tabea Zimmermann play cheaper modern instruments that “sound incredible,” says Bell.

Meanwhile, his many fans will get the last taste of his previous fiddle on a February Sony release of the Mendelssohn and Beethoven concertos conducted by Roger Norrington.

*This article appeared in Strings February/March 2002
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