The luthier's favourite instruments provide ideal models for his own making


The instruments that I love best have one thing in common: they are like textbooks that I can study again and again. They are archetypes of great sound, style, workmanship and design. In choosing models to copy I have shied away from instruments that are too idiosyncratic and individual since I want to incorporate elements of their style and construction into my repertoire. Any originality I prefer to be mine, not some odd quirk of another maker.

I was lucky to find my ideal Guarneri 'del Gesù' and perfect Stradivari early in my training. Fresh, refined, distinctive and elegant, they are classics of their type. As my work has progressed, other instruments have taught me different things.

In school we idealised Stradivari but knew his work mostly from photos. When I saw the 'Cessole' Strad violin of 1716 I realised that this was the instrument we fantasised about: gorgeous wood, with rolling flames sweeping upward, luscious varnish and sleek, animated lines. The corners and the edgework are prominent but delicate, the fs upright and lean. The scroll is deeply sculpted and connected to a slender pegbox that sweeps to the oval head, creating a streamlined effect, unlike some Strad scrolls, which can look a bit blocky. There is a light and nimble character to the work. Tonally it is broad but intense - a soloist's dream.

The 'Plowden' 'del Gesù' violin of 1735 is the instrument that I have studied more than any other. It is remarkably fresh and has the most spectacular one-piece back that I have ever seen. Like the 'Cessole' its varnish is vivid orange-red over a rich reflectve ground. Nothing is tired or washed out - the whole effect is vibrant and alive.

This is my single favourite scroll. It is crisp yet spontaneous, with the tool work left clearly visible. It shows a hand that works confidently - every line goes exactly where it should without second thoughts. The effect is glittering, like facets of a diamond. The corners and f-holes are powerful and lithe. The arching is low and strong, allowing the player to pull a huge, robust sound from the instrument. I have used this model again and again for copies and have reinterpreted it in my own style.

Both fiddles are in a wonderful state of preservation and cannot be improved; they are the classics of their type. Fresh, refined, distinctive, elegant, there is nothing accidental about them. These are the Platonic ideals of making and have been mainstays of my work since 1984.

The 'Ysaye' 'del Gesù' of 1740 I copied for its owner, Isaac Stern. For a later Guarneri it is still extremely elegant but already the work has become a bit looser and in some cases rougher. This fiddle has a distinct personality, with dramatically hooked corners and a very deeply scooped arching channel. The scroll has the same elegance as the 'Plowden' but seems moulded like clay-a fluid, tactile carving.

I might not have chosen this instrument to copy if it weren't for the relationship I developed with Mr Stern. Because the violin is a long-standing concert veteran, the body shows considerable wear and distortion. This forced me deeper into the studies of Guarneri and to a more spontaneous way of working. Early in my career I worked towards precision, but faithfully copying an instrument like the Ysaye required a different approach. I was compelled to expand my ideas about construction and sound production, and to push myself to work more freely and expressively. For me it was important to move past the conservatism and branch out. I also had to intensify my analyis of violins that had been heavily used and under stress. Increasingly I've struggled to visualise a violin not as an art object or museum piece, but as a dynamic structure, in action always moving and changing.

Read Sam Zygmuntowicz's article: Should violin makers embrace cutting edge computer analysis?

Photo: Zygmuntowicz's ideal 'del Gesù', the 'Plowden' of 1735 has a spectacular one-piece back