Boris Sverdlik: A question of taste
If violinists don't always know enough about the music they are playing, most of the time they know even less about the instrument they are holding in their hands. In order to demystify what the violin is about once and for all, I went to interview Boris Sverdlik.
Based in New York for more than 30 years, Mr. Sverdlik is a violinmaker and restorer recognized worldwide. Recommended to me as “the genius of the violin setup” I met him for the first time a few days prior to the interview. Indeed, he seemed to have the perfect “eyes” pitch. The facts were not enough. I had to understand. He started by simply explaining things but soon began to give his critical opinion of today’s violin world instead. In the end I forgot all about the universal and immutable answer I was looking for. I rather preferred to convey the views of someone not afraid of thinking differently who, passionate, finds solutions to the various issues that he faces.
If there is a setup for every violin, there is also a setup for every type of playing. Everything has to coordinate with every reaction of the instrument. Everything has to be in balance and take cared of. The violin is a moving thing, both from a practical and an abstract point of view. It’s practical in the sense that we “use” it on a daily basis. Unlike a painting, the violin cannot be kept behind a glass in the museum with the right temperature and the right humidity. It travels from NY to Taiwan, from the driest place one day to the most humid the next. Going from hand to hand, the violin has lived like that for the past 500 years but will not survive if you don’t take specific care of it every once in a while says Mr. Sverdlik. And by that we don’t mean light sound adjustment but a real reexamination of the set-up and the whole balance of the instrument. Few violinists and violinmakers are aware of this. “We all perspire,” explains Mr. Sverdlik. “The perspiration is acid and eats the wood. You always have to do something to preserve it properly. Leave a violin as it is and you have a great piece of wall art but this is not the essence of it. The violin has to sound.” As a practical thing, you will always have to preserve and take care of the instrument and its sound. The sound, on the other hand, because it’s a question of taste, is the abstract side of the instrument. The possibilities are infinite. The sound of a violin is like the magic that transforms Pinocchio from a piece of wood to a human.
Adjustments of the instrument, yes, but no drastic transformation in its crafting nor in its playing. “Why reinvented the bicycle? Who wants to make another bicycle? Our bicycle is Milstein and Heifetz, Francescatti and Oistrakh”, says Mr. Sverdlik. The old masters are our models of great violin playing. “You don’t have to play like them, and maybe it would even be a problem if you couldn’t do something different.” They had character and style and each one is different. Each one is recognizable. The tendency today is that everyone should sound the same. According to Mr. Sverdlik , even every orchestra used to have its own specific sound, depending on its history, conductor, musicians, and the instruments that were played. You couldn’t mix the Vienna philharmonic with the Berlin Philharmonic or the Boston Symphonic. “With rare exceptions, today everything sounds the same, you have to follow some rule and to blend in” says the violinmaker sadly. For him a violin is a voice. Playing clean on the violin makes no sense. One can dispute this, but if we look at the facts, why would people pay millions for a violin masterpiece? They pay for the voice, the irreplaceable voice. We need this voice above all. The voice is intrinsic to the instrument and lives through the talent of an artist. The talent, you have it or you don’t. You can’t learn to play like Heifetz. Talent is not knowledge and it can’t be rationalized or quantified. Therefore in the opinion of Mr. Sverdlik competitions can be harmful to the music, although they would have been generated with the best intentions in mind. Music competitions are somehow encouraging a middle path and conformity because, unfortunately, you can’t judge by character and color. To judge, one needs a structure and a recipe. “Let’s put a couple of people together and let’s compete”, the violinmaker suggests. “Let’s put an Oistrakh, a Heifetz, and a Milstein together and we will see who will win the first prize. Do you really care who wins? I don’t. I love all of them for their individuality. And between Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven or Bach, who will win the first prize? Mozart maybe? Or maybe even Stravinsky?” Another problem with competitions is that they make teachers and institutions act like factories. What is happening with performance is also happening with the crafting of new instruments. Violinmakers today tend to meet the costumers’ demand for clean and clear. “The instruments from the old masters, like old records, rather have a nasal sandy sound, scratchy and not clear at all”, points out Mr. Sverdlik. He reminds us that it’s exactly the same with singers: they have to scream beautifully to project the sound.
Mr. Sverdlik recognizes that everything happening today is a question of taste and depends on many factors. In fact, many people like what is going on today. Mr. Sverdlik has a different opinion. Taste is a long process that you can’t change overnight. You develop it but you can’t learn it instantaneously and you can’t buy it. “The source of the problem that we are experiencing today is educational. But is there really a problem?” asks the violinmaker. “Maybe it’s only a game, an abstraction that depends on fashion. I like to think that life is an equation. Things depend on where we are in this world. Everything goes in a circle. Are we on the best position of the circle today are we on the worst? Even on the worst position we are so close again to the beginning.”