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Originally published July 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 1, 2007 at 2:05 AM

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Preserving "voices" of world's finest violins

The owner of 15 irreplaceable violins, cellos and violas has launched a CD and DVD project to record the magnificence of the instruments, which are among the world's best.

Seattle Times music critic

The Fulton Collection

The names: The instruments that carry nicknames were typically named for a previous owner (such as the "Duke of Alba" Strad, named for an 18th-century Spanish duke) or famous player (the "Harrison" cello, played by Beatrice Harrison in the early 20th century).

By Antonio Stradivari:

"La Pucelle" violin (1709)

"Baron d'Assignies" violin (1713)

"Bass of Spain" cello (1713)

"Baron Knoop" violin (1715)

"Marsick" violin (1715)

"Duke of Alba" violin (1719)

"Sassoon" violin (1733)

By Giuseppe Guarneri

del Gesù:

"King Joseph" violin (1737)

"Lord Wilton" violin (1742)

By other Italian masters:

Gasparo da Salò viola, by Gasparo Bertolotti of Brescia (1580)

"Conte Vitale, ex. Landau" viola, by Andreas Guarneri of Cremona (1676)

"Petrus" violin, by Pietro Guarneri of Mantua (1698)

"Gudgeon" cello, by Domenico Montagnana of Venice (1737)

"Harrison" cello, by Pietro Guarneri of Venice (1737)

"Rolla" viola, by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1793)

Source: David Fulton

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From about 20 feet away, it looks like any other violin.

There are no trimmings or trappings to tell you that this is the "Lord Wilton" Guarnerius del Gesù, the favorite fiddle of legendary violinists — or that if it were for sale, it might command as much as $10 million.

Then the young violinist James Ehnes tucks the Lord Wilton under his chin and starts to tune up. Suddenly, the 400-seat concert hall is filled with the kind of rich reverberations that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. The music actually sounds amplified. But when you look around the Fulton Performing Arts Center at the Overlake School in Redmond, there are no speakers — only cameras and microphones.

The Lord Wilton, like most of the other instruments in David Fulton's collection, has been thrilling listeners for nearly three centuries. Now, before time takes a further toll on them, the retired Eastside software magnate is documenting the sight and sound of his nine violins, three violas and three cellos.

The Fulton Collection, called the world's greatest by Money magazine before he recently trimmed it down to these ultra-choice 15, is made up of irreplaceable instruments, created by Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù and a handful of other 18th-century Italian masters in and around Cremona. They represent the crème de la crème of the world of strings.

Fulton's stewardship over these instruments won't last forever, but the record he's making of them will. In April, Fulton launched a CD and DVD recording project that will include a documentary, high-definition photographs and digital audio of the instruments' "voices," some described as warm or melancholy, others as nuclear-powered or temperamental.

The project, aimed for release next spring, suspends the look and sound of these Strads and del Gesùs at this moment in time — a sort of musical dragonfly in amber.

Illustrious pasts

Among the instruments saved in this audio-visual time capsule is the "King Joseph" del Gesù, a violin so famous that it was the subject of a 1980 book, a scholarly monograph bound in leather. The King Joseph arrived in the U.S. in 1868, possibly the first great Cremonese instrument to reach this country, and has been loaned to a succession of distinguished violinists to play in competitions. Among them: Itzhak Perlman, who considers the King Joseph a personal favorite.

Then there are the six violins and a cello by the most-famous of all instrument makers — Antonio Stradivari. Between 500 and 600 Strads remain in the world, out of a total of probably 1,116 made in Stradivari's 93-year lifetime. The most prized instruments come from Stradivari's so-called Golden Period, about 1700-1719, and these violins are as recognizable by sight to knowledgeable dealers as faces in a family album.

Not all the violins are so familiar, though. Fulton's "Baron d'Assignies" Strad (1713) was unknown until the mid-1950s, when it was brought into a Paris shop by its owner, a French baron. It had been in his family for more than 100 years — sitting under a bed. Fulton, the third owner since then, calls it "a rarity — an instrument that was authentic, and wonderful, which had been unknown."

Another violin, the "Sassoon" Strad of 1733, made when Stradivari was 89, shows some shakiness in the carving of details, but the old master still knew how to make a great fiddle. The violin is named for a previous owner, Alfred Sassoon, whose wealthy family made its fortune in the opium trade in Shanghai; Alfred's son was the well-known poet of World War I, Siegfried Sassoon.

The cellos have dramatic back stories, too. Take the "Bass of Spain," one of the best of about 60 remaining Strad cellos in the world. Its top had been removed in the mid-1800s and was discovered roasting in a sunny Spanish shop window. An enterprising violin dealer who recognized the top found the rest of the cello and reunited the pieces, then narrowly escaped a lethal storm in the Bay of Biscay.

And then, of course, there's the Lord Wilton, which has been termed — in the opinion of at least two outside experts — the greatest violin in existence. It roars to life as Ehnes and his pianist, Eduard Laurel, launch into the opening lines of Manuel de Falla's fiery "Polo" for the recording.

Ehnes plays the same work on each violin and viola; Seattle Symphony principal cellist Joshua Roman does the same on the three cellos. The recording project aims to capture the distinct voices of each instrument, so side-by-side comparisons of the same piece played on the Lord Wilton can be heard and assessed next to the King Joseph and the other violins.

These string survivors are amazingly perishable. Hold the "La Pucelle" Stradivarius in your hands, and what surprises you the most is how delicate it is. Devoted Strad owners — who recognized that these were the Pavarottis, Callases and Carusos of the string world — have cherished and preserved them through world wars, fires, floods and storms at sea.

These little wooden boxes, and the very expensive bows that tease them into singing, may be fragile, but the ones played by touring virtuosi will be in action every day, usually for hours at a time. They'll be lugged around the world in cabs, jets and the sweaty hands of a player who is counting on the instrument to make him sound better than everyone else.

A variety of voice

No wonder Fulton, himself a violinist, says, "The 20th century has been very hard on these historic instruments." He values players such as the award-winning young Canadian-born Ehnes, a concert soloist who treats the "Marsick" Strad (on indefinite loan from the collection) like a baby. Ehnes, playing all nine violins and the three violas during this week of recording, calls the experience "just like being a kid in a candy store."

After one take, Ehnes describes the King Joseph Guarnerius del Gesù as "very human, with a warm voice." The 1715 "Baron Knoop" Stradivarius has been called the most beautiful of the Strads. And the famous Lord Wilton, made in 1742, is so mighty that Fulton calls it "nuclear-powered."

Each of the three cellos in the collection has a voice that's unique. It's almost as fun watching 23-year-old Roman's face while he plays them, as it is hearing these great instruments in succession. As the high-definition cameras roll, Roman's bow begins a long slide across the strings of the 1737 "Gudgeon" Montagnana cello, the instrument he played in a sold-out Town Hall Seattle recital in March.

In the darkened concert hall in Redmond, collector David Fulton leaned over to discuss the great cellos in between takes.

"The Montagnana is very balanced, very accessible," he said just after Roman turned in a final performance that was even more freely expressive than his first go at Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise."

"But the 'Harrison' cello" — created by Pietro Guarneri of Venice in 1737 — "is a bit more temperamental."

Bigger and darker-toned, this cello gives up its secrets only when the player hits the note dead-center — and then you hear its tremendous, booming bass notes and its singing tone. From the stage, you can hear Roman wrestling with the instrument, calling out, "This is an untamed stallion of a cello!"

Fulton thinks there's always a faint melancholy ring to its sound. This is the instrument for which the famous Elgar Cello Concerto was written, performed by the player (Beatrice Harrison) for whom the cello is nicknamed.

Finally, it's the turn of the Bass of Spain, the instrument that Fulton says "touches my heart."

Roman struggles to find the words: "This one is just ... a thousand times greater."

For one, a debut

Fulton, who sold his very profitable Fox Software company to Microsoft in the early 1990s, bought all this ear candy when Microsoft stock was worth twice its present value. Feeling that there were "no more worlds left to conquer" as a collector, he recently sold seven instruments, keeping only the best ones. Fulton doesn't discuss the profit he has made on the sales, saying only that the instruments, though "not hugely profitable investments, are worth more as time goes on." He was also surprised how quickly and how well they sold.

The video documentary portion of the project, led by Seattle-area producer John Forsen, will be a feature film including interviews and historical perspective. Fulton is writing an accompanying book that is part autobiography and part historical examination of instruments whose histories rival Hollywood screenplays.

This documentary project will also include a remarkable debut: the La Pucelle Strad. The 1709 instrument, in immaculate shape, has never been recorded, having been sequestered from the world for much of its long life. That fact should add luster to the DVD / CD package upon its release next year.

During the photography, the violins, violas and cellos all take a turn suspended very, very carefully from an overhead turntable, allowing them to be shot from every conceivable angle. Fulton has also done immense, finely detailed digital still photographs of all the instruments, so that every wiggle in the wood grain and every tiny nick in the varnish are documented for posterity.

Each instrument, not surprisingly, is different to play. Roman and (especially) Ehnes have to contend with instruments of different sizes and shapes, making minute adjustments to precisely where they'll find that F-sharp on this one, as opposed to that one. The violas are particularly different; the 1793 "Rolla" Guadagnini viola is "tiny," according to Ehnes, but the Gasparo da Salò viola, circa 1580, is "huge — like a cello without an end pin."

It's testament to both players' quickness that they pick up the instruments' idiosyncrasies fast enough to do near-perfect takes.

But not quite perfect. The lynx-eared, New York-based sound producer Tim Martyn, off in a nearby sound room with Seattle sound engineer Al Swanson, says at the conclusion of all but the last takes, "Beautiful. That was just great." Then there is a pause, and the addendum everyone in the room has come to expect: "But could you just do the last three lines of page four another time?"

One thing's for sure: Except perhaps for those exhausted musicians, no one is sorry to hear another take. Hearing this great lineup of instruments, out for another dance with immortality, is an experience no music lover could ever forget.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

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