The Dawn of the Stradivarius, held to mark the launch of the Ashmolean Museum’s exhibition, had special stamped all over it. Canadian violin virtuoso James Ehnes has played regularly on Stradivari violins for nearly two decades, so he was ideal to showcase what he described as “these near-mythical works of art”. Alongside his own Marsick violin from 1715, he played two instruments on loan from the exhibition — a Serdet from 1666 and a Parke from 1711 — in between discussions with violin experts Sir Curtis Price KBE and Charles Beare OBE.
He began by playing the opening of Elgar’s Violin Concerto on each instrument to demonstrate their tonal differences. According to Ehnes, a Stradivari makes great demands on the player in terms of bow speed and pressure, and he made subtle adjustments to accommodate the warmth of the Serdet, the greater vibrancy of the Parke and the velvety richness of the Marsick. He then used each instrument in turn to play Bach’s sublime Preludio from Partita No.3 and Prokofiev’s glorious Sonata for Solo Violin Op.115, finishing with a brilliant performance of Paganini’s Caprice No.24. He was obliged to give an encore — the Largo from Bach’s Third Sonata — before the audience reluctantly let him go.
Early music ensemble La Serenissima provided a sublime contrast in the second half with music by Stradivari’s contemporaries.