Focus, preparation and a willingness to adapt are keys to performing on two different instruments
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What are the differences in set-up between a baroque violin and a modern violin?
The construction is very different. Basically, the baroque violin has less tension than its modern cousin, by using a shorter bass-bar. The fingerboard on a baroque violin is larger, so the hand has a better hold in the neck - when you play without a shoulder rest and chin rest, you need another hold point for the hand in the neck. The fingerboard is also shorter (they didn’t play in high positions in that period) and fingerboard angle is lower than modern (they didn’t need as much power as we do now!). The baroque bridge and tailpiece are flatter which helps to play several notes and chords at a time.
How do you adapt your instruments and ears switching between the different tuning of the two violins?
I used to have perfect pitch, but when I started to play early music, I lost it. Not only because you play at 415Hz (half tone lower than in modern) but you change constantly to other pitches depending on the pieces and period you play. In the Rome of Corelli or the France of Lully, musicians used to play 392Hz, yet in the Venice of the Seicento period, the pitch was very high: 460Hz. In the beginning it is very difficult to get used to playing half tone lower than usual, because your fingers want to play a certain note, but your mind and ears hear another one. It’s very confusing but in the end it is a matter of practising the switch between different pitches.
What strings do you use for baroque playing? How does your left hand technique differ between the two instruments?
For a baroque violin player, finding the correct tension in the gut strings is not easy. You have to find the correct gauges that suit your fingers and also the tension of your violin. Gut strings are more sensitive in sound production and in terms of intonation because they have less stability than metallic strings. In the Baroque period, vibrato was considered an ornamentation, a complement, only used in certain moments, or long notes. I remember it took me very long not to use vibrato at all in the beginning when I started baroque violin. For many violinists, vibrato is almost automatic and taking conscious control over when you activate it (modern) and when you deactivate it (baroque) was one of the hardest things to learn. High positions were barely used in the baroque period.
How do you switch from one instrument to another during a concert?
It is a very mental effort. It requires lots of concentration and lots of practice. They are two completely different instruments, with two different fingerboard distances, with two diferent tensions, plus two different bow techniques to apply. In concerts, I try to mentally visualise each aspect of each instrument and specifically go through all the feelings and sensations in my mind before playing a note on either of them.
How is bowing technique different on baroque and modern violin?
Baroque bow technique is totally different; you have to erase all you have learned in modern bow technique. The general rule is: two notes are never even or equal; a downbow has to be played louder than an up bow, so the sound is uneven. The flexibility of gut means you can go deeper with your bow on the strings, which allows you to perform the music effect calledmessa di voce. You don’t use lots of speed with your bow, but instead little bow and more pressure. That what you would normally do with vibrato, you must do with the bow. Your right arm has to work hard!
Read: Baroque Set-up: In a Land without Rules
Read: 8 tips for good muscular health as a performer
Read: Leila Schayegh’s top 5 tips on historically informed vibrato
Tell us about your debut album Baroque/Modern
This album full of musical contrasts embodies originality, risk-taking, innovation and has never been done or performed before. It came from my vital and personal need to relate the past to the present, contrast and connection. I’ve performed this programme in concert and experienced the overwhelmingly positive reaction of the public, which has sparked a personal desire to break musical barriers and search for new forms of musical presentation, communication, and connection between performers and listeners.
Did you start your initial violin studies on baroque or modern?
Initially I did all my studies and training purely as a modern violinist, later on I felt the need of a change in my career, and I felt the urge to be able to play Bach, Vivaldi and other composers as it was in the past. It was then that I discovered baroque violin and the early music world felt organic for me. I think it is very important to have a solid base and technique first, I don’t recommend starting too early with baroque violin.
Is one of the two (slightly) easier to play for you, and if so, which one and why?
It depends. Normally I feel more comfortable with baroque violin even if intonation is a nightmare and more unstable than on modern. But lately I am returning to enjoying modern playing a lot. In my opinion it is harder to switch from baroque playing to modern - you have to work so hard to get a beautiful, connected and sustained sound in modern and also get back to a nice and beautiful vibrato again after playing baroque.
Will you continue to go down the route of playing two instruments, or will you make a choice?
I love to combine them, even if it is difficult and harder work as you have to practise twice as much! But they are connected and they nourish each other constantly. Playing baroque violin has influenced and opened my music view and approach with my modern violin playing and vice versa. They need each other!
Winner of the Golden Prize in World Classical Music Awards in UK; Best Interpretation and Emerging Artist 2022 in the Global Music Awards California, US; Award Melómano de Oro, Melómano; Best Album in Classical and Contemporary Music Top 3 in the Enderrock Awards, and nominated for best Classical Album in the MIN Awards (Premios de la Música Independiente) Spain, Anna Urpina’s album Baroque/Modernis out now on Ibs Classical.
Read: Beyond Bach: 12 tips for better Baroque playing
Listen: The Strad Podcast #63: Alina Ibragimova on historically informed performance
Read: 5 insights on historically informed performance from The Strad archives
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