Friday, September 18, 2009

Fungus-treated violin beats Strad in blind test

A researcher has put a newly developed, fungally treated violin in a blind contest against one made in 1711 by the most famed violin maker of history -- and the newer fiddle won. The event took place Sept. 1 at an annual conference on forest husbandry, the Osnabruecker Baumpflegetagen, in Osnabrueck, Germany.

Scientist Francis Schwarze of EMPA, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research, developed the new violin by treating it with specially selected fungus, which he says improves the sound quality by making the wood lighter and more uniform.

In the test, the British star violinist Matthew Trusler played five different instruments behind a curtain, so that the audience didn't know which was being played. One of the violins Trusler played was his own "Strad," or instrument made by the most storied violin maker of history, Antonio Stradivari, in Italy in the 18th century. The other four were all made by Swiss violin maker Michael Rhonheimer -- two with Schwarze's fungally-treated wood, the other two with untreated wood.

A jury of experts, together with the conference participants, judged the tone quality of the violins. Of the more than 180 attendees, almost half, or 90, felt the tone of a fungally treated violin dubbed "Opus 58" the best. The Strad reached second place with 39 votes, but 113 members of the audience thought that "Opus 58" was actually the Strad. "Opus 58" was the one made from wood that had been treated with fungus for the longest time, nine months, Schwarze said.

Stradivarius violins are regarded as being of unparalleled quality even today, commanding prices in the millions. Stradivari himself knew little of woodattacking fungi, but Schwarze claims the master received inadvertent help from a "Little Ice Age" which occurred from 1645 to 1715. During this period Central Europe suffered long winters and cool summers which caused trees to grow slowly and uniformly creating ideal conditions for the fungus to attack. For the new violins, Schwarze uses Norwegian spruce wood treated with the fungus Physiporinus vitrius and sycamore treated with Xylaria longipes.

The result means that "in the future even talented young musicians will be able to afford a violin with the same tonal quality as an impossibly expensive Stradivarius," said Horst Heger of the Osnabrueck City Conservatory.

Schwarze said the new instruments would probably run about $25,000. "Compared to a conventional instrument, a violin made of wood treated with the fungus has a warmer, more rounded sound," he added.


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