Violin virtuoso Pinchas Zukerman played the world's most expensive musical instrument last month. It was in Moscow, where Zukerman gave a concert on a Guarneri del Gesu violin that had been bought by a Russian at Sotheby's auction house in London in February for a record $3.9-million.
"I was invited to do it by the man who bought the violin, Maxim Viktorov, a well-to-do lawyer who loves the violin,'' Zukerman said by phone last week, while waiting to board a flight from New York to St. Martin in the Caribbean for a brief vacation. "He's trying to bring back to Russia its cultural glory days. He has a couple other good instruments.''
Zukerman, who is guest conductor and soloist with the Florida Orchestra this weekend, owns a violin similar to the one he played in Moscow, made by the same illustrious Italian luthier. His instrument is the "Dushkin" Guarneri of 1742.
"Maxim's latest acquisition is a year older than mine,'' the violinist said. "Guarneri made some remarkable fiddles in that period from about 1739 to 1743. They all have their own DNA, so to speak, their own character. For me it was not a particularly unusual thing to do. After a couple of hours, it was like I had played on it for years.''
In a concert for Moscow's elite at the Pashkov House, Zukerman performed a program of Bach, Mozart and Bruch on the violin, which had not been heard in public for more than 70 years.
"It could be a number of reasons (why it hadn't been played in concert for so long),'' Zukerman said. "Many instruments are hidden sometimes, because of wars, or because of family feuds. Who knows?''
The instrument's sound resembled that of his own Guarneri, which he acquired in 1979 from the widow of the great Polish violinist Samuel Dushkin. "I compare it to light chocolate and dark chocolate,'' Zukerman said. "Mine is slightly darker chocolate than that one, but they're both chocolates.''
Guarneri violins are even more rare than those by the other great Italian luthier, Antonio Stradivari. Zukerman has played many Strads, but he prefers Guarneri. He also has a Guarneri viola.
"A Guarneri sounds better in my hand,'' he said. "You can give me a secondary Guarneri family instrument and a great Strad, and the Guarneri will sound better. It's like throwing a stone into a pond. You know how you have that ripple effect? The projection of the Guarneri has a larger ripple effect, for me, than the Strad.''
Only about 150 violins by Guarneri have survived. "Every one of them is a perfect acoustical machine that works so beautifully if you just take care of it,'' Zukerman said. "Don't abuse it too much — in too cold or hot weather. Play it in tune with a nice sound and it will play forever.''
Zukerman, 59, has followed the violin market with amazement over the years.
"I remember the Lady Blunt,'' he said of a 1721 Stradivarius. "It was a great violin, which sold in 1970 or '71 at Sotheby's for $210,000. That's a steal today. They fluctuate with the market like paintings by Picasso or Degas. It's prohibitive, obviously, for a lot of people to buy the damn things because they're so expensive. On the other hand, when a violin is that special, it should be preserved for the future. But they should be played, not kept behind glass.''
Zukerman, along with his priceless violin, is making his second appearance with the Florida Orchestra. In 2005, he conducted an all-Beethoven program that featured him as the soloist in the violin concerto. Having the superstar violinist on the podium made an impact, with the orchestra's string section sounding as strong and cohesive as it ever had.
"I sure do remember how the depth of the string section improved dramatically. That's what happens,'' he said.
The violin soloist-conductor returns in the same dual capacity this weekend for Elgar's Serenade for Strings, the Schubert Fifth Symphony and Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3. Zukerman has been playing the five Mozart violin concertos since he was a teenager.
"I think I learned a lot by being in Europe early on, when I was 17, 18,'' he said. "There's a distinct sonority that the German orchestras get in Mozart, a lushness without being thick. I think it has to do with the German language itself. They play it in a very different manner because of the language.''
Zukerman said that conducting and playing the solo in the Mozart concerto isn't a problem.
"I think it's easier. It's a large chamber music work. Everyone's process of listening goes up by 50 percent. I can demonstrate their part if necessary (in rehearsal), so it's very quick rather than my having to describe it in words or by gesture.''
John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or [email protected]