A violin’s life

Frank AlmondFri 6th May 2016

Frank Almond's 300-year-old Stradivarius has led quite a life... and was almost lost forever in an armed robbery

I’d always hoped that ‘A Violin’s Life’ would eventually be a multi-volume project, but understood that would depend on a number of factors. The 2013 release was received with much enthusiasm, far more than I’d anticipated. Clearly repertoire existed for Volume 2 (perhaps even beyond), but the events of January 2014 simultaneously curtailed and accelerated those plans. As my life imploded within a few hours when my Stradivarius violin was stolen in an armed robbery, it was difficult to imagine ever even seeing the Lipiński again, let alone playing it. Miraculously, 10 days later it was back in my hands, relatively unscathed.

Amid a media frenzy and various new security protocols, I was determined to finish what had already looked to be a busy season, but was so physically and psychologically drained that another recording project wasn't possible. A few months later I’d planned it all out, but predictably there were a lot of moving parts to the puzzle, and the legal issues related to the theft dragged on until February 2015. Nevertheless, I was adamant about recording at least one more volume, hopefully during the violin’s 300th anniversary season.

Amanda Maier-Röntgen, the composer of the Sonata for Violin and Piano on this new recording, was the first wife of the German-Dutch composer Julius Röntgen, whose Sonata No 2 was featured on ‘A Violin’s Life’. Julius's father, Englebert, was Amanda’s violin professor at the Conservatoire in Leipzig. She was the first woman to graduate in numerous disciplines from the Royal College of Music in Stockholm in 1872, and was already a celebrated soloist and composer before her marriage to Julius in 1880. Her Sonata is in the Romantic spirit of Schumann, with a touch of Grieg and certainly Brahms as well, all intimately connected to the Röntgen family in one way or another. She died of tuberculosis in Amsterdam in 1894; the violin stayed in the family for many decades.

The composer Eduard Tubin came to Amanda Maier-Röntgen’s native Sweden as a refugee, fleeing the various invasions of his native Estonia in 1944. He remains an unjustly obscure composer, despite the efforts of the eminent Neeme Järvi, who has boldly championed Tubin’s symphonies. The powerful Solo Sonata dates from 1962, and still resides distinctly outside the mainstream repertoire. Tubin's works were often programmed by the Estonian violinist Evi Liivak, who played on the Lipiński from 1962 until her retirement in the late 1980s. As musician members of the Estonian diaspora created by the war, they were surely acquainted.

Beethoven’s iconic Sonata speaks for itself, in all its bizarre glory. The original dedicatee of the work was his friend George Bridgetower, the mulatto virtuoso violinist–composer who faded into obscurity and died in poverty. Half Caribbean, half Polish, Bridgetower was another outlier, despite his artistic prowess and fame. After having received a manuscript of the sonata only the day before, he and Beethoven gave the premiere of the sonata on May 24, 1803, in Vienna. The story goes that (drinking together afterwards) Beethoven and the violinist fell out over a woman, and the composer re-dedicated the piece to the French violinist Rudolphe Kreutzer, who evidently found it incomprehensible and never performed it. In 1840, Karol Lipiński performed the ‘Kreutzer’ as part of a Beethoven cycle in Dresden. Franz Liszt was the pianist.

So here is Vol 2 - hopefully a testament to the survival of great music played on a great work of art, even throughout a saga no one could have possibly imagined back when I started this endeavor in 2012. I am obviously quite relieved to be alive and still playing this superb violin, and my gratitude has only increased throughout the challenges and triumphs of the past three years.

'A Violin's Life, Vol 2' is released on May 6 in the US, and on May 27 in the UK.

Frank Almond

Frank Almond is the Concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and also appears frequently as a soloist, chamber musician, and educator.

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