Time for some culture, philistines.
A while ago I accidentally stumbled into the fiddle stylings of virtuoso musician Janine Jansen. To this day she remains one of at most two players my aging and addled mind can call forth at whim for a strings fix (Alisa Weilerstein is the other, cellohmyyyy friends, her Kodály from Solo is unreal). Even with that being the case, I’m not a regular listener to classical, as a rule. Sometimes, though, sometimes you happen upon a legend being legendary. Sometimes magic is real.
So first. Some facts.
Antonio Stradivari was a luthier living in Cremona, Italy in/around ~1700. During his 75 years of instrument making, it is generally agreed that some of the best, if not the absolute pinnacle, of violins came from his workshop, generally from the 25 year span 1700-1725 known as his Golden Period. There are about 500 surviving Stradivari in the world and they range in valuation from many, many thousands to many, many millions. Much like fine art, their value comes from more than the sum of their parts, but in a way somewhat distinct from fine art, the fullest appreciation for the magic of these instruments comes only from being played, and with their values being what they are, only the exceptionally talented or exceptionally wealthy have the opportunity to play them, the former sometimes being the beneficiaries of foundations and patrons that lend these rare instruments to talented players to both enhance the player and their art, but also certainly to build the provenance of these already legendary instruments.
Since these instruments, particularly Golden Period instruments, are so highly valued and few in number, there are a select few organizations well respected and well connected enough to regularly deal with them. You may or may not recognize the name J & A Beare (I didn’t), they’re a business that deals exclusively in all things violin, and some other things stringed. If you have or want a spectacular violin, you talk to them, or perhaps they talk to you. Steven Smith, Managing Director at J & A Beare had a truly wild thought: could he organize a temporary loan of a dozen specific Stradivari and could he find a player and arranger to collaborate with him to curate a selection of reasonably compact pieces to extol the unique virtues of each of these instruments? Some of these instruments have never been recorded. Some haven’t been played in years. Some required restoration to even be playble. Steven Smith is nothing if not ambitious.
Due to her surpassing talent and universally acclaimed skill, Janine Jansen has been the keeper of no less than four different Stradivari in support of her performing career. She currently plays the 1715 ‘Rode, Duke of Cambridge’, on loan from an unnamed European benefactor. In the past, she played the 1727 ‘Baron Deurbroucq’, owned by…Beare’s International Violin Society, a sub-operation of J & A Beare established to pair rare instruments with rare talents, often up-and-coming players.
Armed, as you are now, with these facts, you can now surely appreciate the rarity of this conflux. Steven Smith made magic happen, in the midst of the global pandemic, because timing is everything. The player was Janine Jansen, as you may have surmised. Her parter and collaborator was conductor/pianist Antonio Pappano, soon-to-be chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. What. A. Thing. Whether you’re an appreciator of the genre or not, whether any of these names or facts mean anything to you or not, even the most cynical among music appreciators would have to admit this is a situation overflowing with potential.
Unsurprisingly, the potential converted into a stunning work. The extreme skill of Janine Jansen in seeking out the truth of these different instruments, testing and exploring and dialing in the pieces with Antonio Pappano, collaboratively matching accompaniment and style and voicing for each selection, producing fifteen tracks from thirteen composers aligned with twelve violins, each absolutely gorgeous. I, personally, am particularly enamored of the simplicity of the arrangements. The violins and their individual voices are given such wonderful space to shine, and Janine Jansen seems to meld distinctly with each one, finding the booming power of the 1715 Alard, the speed and cunning of the 1734 Kreisler, the breathy voice of the 1722 de Chaponay, the supremely melodius quality of her own 1715 Rode. The variation in pieces and style, a technical tap dance, a towering romantic, a mournful lament, a playful skip, truly a musical smorgasbord.
Leading up to and during the recording of this lovely album of pure magic, they shot a documentary and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I don’t have a great answer as to where you can stream it or acquire it, but I did, and I believe in you to find a way.
This was a tough pick situation. Danse Espagnole cause I love a crafty pluck, and the Ravel because, well, I just enjoy Ravel in general and this is better than general, for me, but every track on this album has something different to offer. I adore Kriesler’s Syncopation, such a playful 2/4, and the Szymanowski has this rich fantastical, mysterious quality. So much to hear.
Anyway, here they are.
Falla - La vida breve - Danse Espagnole
Ravel - Pièce en forme de Habanera, M. 51 (Arr. Catherine for Violin and Piano)
Where to find Janine Jansen: