Violin With a Past: Znaider cherishes a rare 'Del Gesu'

The day Nikolaj Znaider got rid of his Stradivarius was one of the happiest of his career.

That's because the violinist traded it in for an even better instrument, a Guarnerius del Gesu violin built in 1741. The violin maker, Giuseppe Guarneri was nicknamed "del Gesu" due to the sacred monogram "IHS," for the name of Jesus, he placed on his labels.

But this particular instrument bears quite a history. It used to be the concert violin of Fritz Kreisler, the Austrian-born phenomenon who lived from 1875-1962.

"You feel the breadth of history when you are playing something that Kreisler was playing 100 years ago," says Znaider, 32. "This one is absolutely extraordinary in the power and the warmth of sound that it has."

As was the case with his previous instrument, the Kreisler del Gesu is on extended loan to Znaider by the Royal Danish Theater.

"If this were even 30 to 40 years ago, I could have bought this myself," says Znaider, who studied with Russian pedagogue Boris Kushnir. "That's the difference. It has gone from a collector's item to a real work of art. It's like a van Gogh, only that this van Gogh actually needs to travel around and play."

Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, conductor; Nikolaj Znaider, violin. Sibelius' Violin Concerto, Debussy's "Nocturnes," and Ravel's Suite No. 2 from "Daphnis et Chloe."
  • Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
  • When: 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
  • Tickets: $19-$75; 412-392-4900.

Pianists may have a favorite company and wind players may favor a certain reed or mouthpiece, but the outpouring of love that string players display for their instruments is hard to top.

"On every level this is a complete love affair," Znaider says with a laugh. "This violin has a depth to the sound that I always missed in other violins, almost a baritone quality without losing brilliance. It is for me absolutely irresistible. It has a spell over the person who plays it. It makes you addicted to it. You don't want to put it down."

Znaider is convinced that it will cast a spell over the audience, too, especially in a piece as expansive as Sibelius' Violin Concerto, which he will perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony this weekend. "You will [hear] the capabilities. I tried it in some of the biggest halls like Rome's new auditorium. The overtones are so vibrant; it carries effortlessly."

The del Gesu may sing, but it is also tough enough for the 6-foot-3 Znaider, who practices the martial art Kenpo. "It responds to the way physically I like to play," he says. "I am a big guy, I am strong. It takes everything I give."

Znaider, who debuted at Heinz Hall in 2005, was born in Denmark to Polish-Israeli parents who pushed him intellectually as much as musically.

"If we had a question, my parents would take me to the encyclopedia," he says. Musically, this broader view of things has led Znaider to conducting.

"For me it came very organically, something that developed," he says. "Obviously I came from the violin repertory but then I began more and more to occupy my time with studies of other works. In the end, all this absorption of great music had to find an artistic outlet, and it came as a necessity."

That last point is important for Znaider. "One has to be very careful, especially as an instrumentalist," he says. "If you conduct, it must be really for the right reasons, not for the ego."

He has conducted the likes of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and is already building a repertoire of Beethoven, Dvorak, Smetna, Elgar. He even has plans to conduct an opera, Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro."

Znaider doesn't plan on trading his beloved del Gesu for a wooden baton just yet.

"I don't want to lose either," he says. "One gives possibilities the other doesn't afford. [You have] responsibility and musical control as a conductor [but] you are only in indirect contact with the sound, whereas as a violinist I am in full control."

But both endeavors come from a common musical wellspring, a "different expression of the same philosophy," he says. "It doesn't matter if you sing or play or dance, you have to believe in what you are doing."

Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at or 412-263-1750. He blogs at . First Published October 18, 2007 4:00 AM


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?