The violin I use for most of my concerts is known as the “ex-Soldat.” It was made in 1742 by Joseph Guarneri "del Gesu.”
Guarneri and Stradivari are considered to be the two greatest violin makers of all time. “Del Gesu” violins have been the preferred instruments of many famous violinists including Paganini, Ysaye, Kreisler, Heifetz, Stern, and Zukerman. Many of these violins have special histories; here is the story of mine:
In 1875, an extremely talented young musician named Marie Soldat (1863-1955) decided to give up the violin to develop her talents in piano and voice. Hearing Joseph Joachim perform in Graz three years later, however, inspired her to return to the violin, and to study with him.
Marie Soldat was introduced to Brahms at Pörtschach during a summer tour of Austrian spas in 1879. After hearing her play, he arranged a benefit performance to help pay for her studies. Brahms also gave her money for a train ticket to join him and Joachim in Salzburg. When she began to play the Mendelssohn Concerto with Brahms at the piano, the strings on her violin snapped. Joachim handed her his Stradivari, and her performance was so impressive that Joachim accepted her into his class at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin.
Soldat (later Soldat-Röger) became a member of Brahms's inner circle and a regular chamber music partner. Their friendship continued throughout his life. The famed pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow once introduced her as "Brahms's understudy."
Soldat was widely considered one of the greatest violinists of her day. She studied the Brahms Concerto with both Joachim and Brahms, and it became her signature piece. She introduced it to many European cities, including Vienna in 1885, with Hans Richter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. She gave it its second performance in Berlin, with Joachim conducting.
Brahms selected this violin for Soldat in 1897 and arranged for a wealthy Viennese businessman to purchase it and loan it to her for her lifetime. The Strad magazine, in 1910, remarked that "…[it] bears most of the characteristics we have learnt to associate with this maker in a remarkable degree. The tone is of extraordinary beauty, and suits the violinist's virile style admirably.… The tone is full and rich, and noticeably deep on the G string. All the outlines of the fiddle seem to breathe life and strength."
I like to think that Brahms chose this violin, in part, because its voice represents most closely what he envisioned for his music.
After Marie Soldat passed away, her violin was bought by a collector and not heard in the world for many years. I have been using it since 2002 when I recorded the Brahms and Joachim Concertos with the Chicago Symphony. It is a great privilege to have such a magnificent instrument as my musical partner and it is a great joy to share its voice with you.
My baroque violin is a 1770 Nicola Gagliano in completely original condition. The tailpiece and fingerboard were made for me by Whitney Osterud and modeled on the “Medici Stradivari.” The instrument is strung with gut strings and usually tuned to A=415. I chose this violin partly from a desire for greater authenticity, but mainly because this instrument and setup bring me closest to the concept of sound that I envision for my interpretations of repertoire from the 1600s and 1700s.