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Authors: Paul Adam

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BOOK: Paganini's Ghost
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The insurance company escorts weren't happy about that. This was
their
show. They didn't want the local cops muscling in on it. One of the bodyguards glared at the policemen and said sharply, “You're supposed to be watching the road.”

The police officers nodded indifferently, their eyes hidden behind their sunglasses, but they didn't move. They weren't going to take orders from a civilian in an Armani suit.

“Okay?” the van driver said. His voice was soft, muffled by the Perspex visor of his crash helmet.

The bodyguards took a last look round, scrutinising the forecourt, the road, the fields.

“Okay, go ahead.”

The van driver inserted a key into the lock, turned it, and swung open the heavy armour-plated doors. The watching group—me included—edged forward, necks craning to see into the interior.

It was something of an anticlimax. At first sight, the van appeared empty—just bare walls and a large vacant cavity. Then the eye was drawn down to the floor, to a web of straps and buckles that were holding something in place. In the centre of the web—looking very small and insignificant—was a rather shabby rectangular violin case.

The driver climbed inside the van, unfastened the straps carefully, and picked up the case by its handle. He passed it to one of the insurance company men, lowered himself back down to the ground, then took the case back.

Quietly, without needing to be given instructions, we somehow organised ourselves into a rough line. The bodyguards were at the front, the van driver sandwiched between them; then came Golinelli and the Ivanovs. I was next, just ahead of Golinelli's assistant and the Ivanovs' driver. The four police officers clustered at the rear and, like mourners at a funeral, we all processed solemnly round to my workshop.

Everything about the occasion—the policemen, the bodyguards, the armoured van—seemed so over the top that I was almost inclined to laugh. But the precautions were understandable, for this was no ordinary violin we were escorting. This was a Guarneri “del Gesù”—the most valuable, famous Guarneri del Gesù on earth. This was
il Cannone
—the Cannon—the violin that had belonged to Nicolò Paganini.

Two

N
o one can be absolutely certain when and how Paganini came by his Guarneri. The experts, who are notoriously loathe to agree with one another about anything, are divided on the matter. But the generally accepted story is that it was in Livorno in 1802. Paganini was staying in the Tuscan city, but without his violin, which he had probably pawned to pay off one of his many gambling debts. He was nineteen at the time and, since breaking with his tyrannical father and leaving home, had been enjoying his newfound freedom in the manner of all young men throughout the ages—with a surfeit of drink, cards, and women. He had not yet acquired the longhaired, cadaverous appearance and the Mephistophelian notoriety that was to come a few years later, but he was already renowned in northern Italy as a violinist of extraordinary talent. The Livornese asked him to give a concert in their city, overcoming his lack of a violin by lending him a Guarneri del Gesù that belonged to a wealthy local merchant named Livron. The merchant was so overwhelmed by Paganini's playing that
he made him a gift of the del Gesù after the recital. It was Paganini who christened the instrument “the Cannon”—because of its powerful, booming tone—and, though he owned other violins during his lifetime,
il Cannone
was always his favourite, the instrument with a unique place in his heart. When he died, in 1840, Paganini left the del Gesù to his home city of Genoa, where it is kept in a glass display case in the town hall most of the time, emerging only once every two years when the winner of the Premio Paganini international violin competition is permitted to play it as part of the prize.

I have seen the instrument on display in Genoa and once, many years ago, had the privilege of handling it in the workshop of the city's then conservator of violins, an old friend of mine from my apprentice days in Cremona. But I had never had the responsibility of examining and quite possibly carrying out work on the violin, until now.

It was a daunting prospect. This was a very special instrument. I tried not to think about how much
il Cannone
was worth.
Priceless
is how it is usually described, but the insurance company would undoubtedly have quantified that adjective into something a little more tangible. Ten million euros? Twenty million? How do you put a price on a voice, on a sound that can move an audience to tears?

The case was on the bench in front of me. I gazed at it for a long moment without touching it. I was aware of the people round me—the two bodyguards breathing down my neck, the police officers and the others crowding in on all sides, everyone waiting expectantly for a glimpse of the violin. I felt like a physician at a royal birth, about to deliver the heir to the throne with a throng of idle courtiers looking on.

My fingers trembling slightly, I reached out and unfastened the catches on the case. I paused for a second. My workshop suddenly seemed very cramped and stuffy.

“If you could move back just a fraction,” I said. “I need more room.”

The spectators withdrew, though not very far. In the confines of the small workshop, there was almost nowhere for them to go. I flexed my shoulders, pushing back the young men from the insurance company,
who seemed reluctant to be separated from me. Then I lifted the lid of the case. In an instant, everyone was back, pushing and jostling to see the contents. One of the police officers let out a contemptuous snort—as if to say, All that fuss over this?—and turned away. His disappointment was contagious. I sensed the excitement in the room abate, the spectators' curiosity vanish abruptly. I could almost hear the crash of expectations being dashed.

In a way, I could sympathise with them.
Il Cannone
is not an obviously attractive violin. In fact, it has an almost scruffy look to it. It is more than 250 years old, of course, which doesn't help, but it is not just its age that is the problem. We have come to expect our violins to be smooth and perfect, as if their makers had only just finished them. We expect them to have a vivid colour and almost dazzling sheen, but that is not how Guarneri—or Stradivari, for that matter—made them. Eighteenth-century violins did not have a high French polish. To understand an instrument like the Cannon, you must not let your first impressions influence you. You must look below the surface to fully appreciate its qualities; you must study the detail, the craftsmanship, looking for substance as well as style. You must keep your mind open, eliminate preconceptions and prejudices, like an anthropologist travelling to some distant isolated community where the definition of beauty is different from our own.

And the Cannon is a beautiful violin. There is no doubt about that. The colour has faded and the front plate, between the f-holes, is black with impacted rosin, but the back still has a magnificent lustre, a pattern of russet stripes over a glowing gold base that is like gazing at a sunset through a slatted wooden blind.

Was I the only person in the room who could see it, who could truly appreciate the greatness that was manifest in every line and curve of the instrument? I didn't care. I was besotted with it. With
her
, I should say, for a violin is always female. There were a dozen other people in the room, but I no longer noticed them. I had eyes only for this voluptuous little lady in the box before me—a new love in my life, albeit a fleeting one.

Enrico Golinelli cleared his throat.

“Dottor Castiglione, if I might press you.” he said anxiously. “Signor Ivanov's recital is at eight o'clock, and it is already nearing five.”

I looked up.

“Yes, yes, of course. We must get on. Let's have a look at her, shall we?”

I reached into the case and grasped the Cannon by the neck. My fingers closed round the wood and I felt a shiver run up my arm, a strange, unsettling tingle. I knew it was ridiculous, but it seemed to me as if I could detect the imprint of Paganini's fingers on the instrument. I released my grip, my pulse suddenly throbbing.

“Dottor Castiglione?” Golinelli said. “Is everything all right?”

He was peering at me with concern, his eyes very large behind his thick spectacles.

“Yes,” I reassured him. “Everything is fine. It's just that . . . there are too many people in here. I cannot work with everyone watching.”

“Yes, I should have thought. We must clear the room.”

Golinelli looked round and raised his voice.

“May I ask you all to leave, please. . . .”

Ludmilla Ivanova opened her mouth to protest, but Golinelli broke in before she could speak.

“Signora Ivanova and Signor Ivanov excepted, of course. You must stay.”

“We need to stay, too,” one of the insurance company men said. “We have orders not to let the violin out of our sight.”

I saw Golinelli hesitate, so I stepped in. This was
my
workshop, after all. The last thing I wanted was a couple of intimidating security guards standing over me while I tried to do my job.

“What could possibly happen?” I said. “The violin is safe with me; I can assure you of that. I have worked on many important instruments—Guarneris, Stradivaris—and I have never yet had anything go wrong. The best protection you can give this violin is to wait outside and give me the space to find out what's the matter with it.”

The insurance men looked at each other. Then they shrugged and
turned towards the door. They ushered everyone else out, then followed, closing the door firmly behind them. Looking through the window, I saw them take up positions on the terrace, from where they could prevent anyone approaching the workshop.

Only Golinelli, the Ivanovs, and I now remained round my workbench. I lifted the del Gesù out of its case. There was no shiver this time, I was glad to see, just the warm solidity of the maple. I gave it a perfunctory inspection, plucking the strings to check that they were in tune. Then I looked at Yevgeny Ivanov. He was half-hidden by his mother's formidable bulk.

“Describe to me the problem,” I said. “What exactly did you hear?”

Yevgeny stepped to one side, giving me a clear view of his slender face, but before he could say anything, Ludmilla answered my question.

“It is a slight vibration,” she said. “Like a buzzing noise.”

“A buzzing noise?” I repeated.

“Not loud, but Yevgeny can hear it. He can feel it. It disturbs him. He cannot play with that kind of noise in his ear.”

“And you noticed this when?” I asked, looking at Yevgeny.

Again, it was Ludmilla who replied.

“This afternoon. During the rehearsal in the cathedral.”

“You didn't hear it before, in Genoa?”

“No, he didn't,” Ludmilla said. “Just this afternoon.”

Golinelli turned to me, rubbing his hands together nervously.

“As I said earlier, the violin was checked before Signor Ivanov's concert in Genoa, then again before it was put on the van to be brought to Cremona. Perhaps something has been disturbed by the journey. It really is very important that we diagnose the fault and correct it. Very important. The Cannon is a national treasure.”

I reached out and stilled his fidgeting hands.

“Stop worrying,” I said soothingly. “We will find the fault; have no fear of that. And we will put it right.”

“But time is not on our side, Dottore. We have only a few hours.”

“We have time enough,” I said.

I held out the violin to Yevgeny Ivanov.

“Let me hear it.”

Yevgeny took his shoulder rest from the case and attached it to the instrument. Then he removed his bow and tightened it. He slid the violin under his chin. That one small act seemed to transform him. The quiet, shy young man suddenly changed and became a different, more confident person. I have noticed this before in great soloists. They often have a humility about them, a self-effacing modesty that seems surprising in a person whose job it is to perform—literally to show off on a stage. But you put them with their instrument and it is as if a missing part of their body has been restored to them. They have become a whole person again.

He played a sarabande from one of the Bach unaccompanied partitas. I could see, and hear, at once why this unassuming young man had won first prize in the Premio Paganini competition. There was a quality to his playing that was immediately arresting, that made you sit up and listen. His tone was rich and powerful—and that wasn't solely because of the Cannon—but it also had a haunting sweetness that lingered in the ear. He could draw out a melody, could make his violin sing, perform that magic trick that I always think of as nothing short of miraculous: taking horsehair and gut and a wooden box and making such rapturous music with them.

“Give me the full dynamic range,” I said. “From pianissimo to fortissimo and back again, on each string in turn.”

“There . . .” Ludmilla said. “Did you hear it?”

“Yes, I—”

“You must have. What is it?”

“One moment, signora.”

“But did you hear it?”

“Yes, I heard it.”

It was very faint—like the intermittent buzzing of a drowsy wasp outside a closed window—but I could detect it nonetheless. My heart sank. A faint buzzing noise is a luthier's worst nightmare. The whole raison d'être of a violin depends on vibrations. That is how the sound
is produced—from the strings, through the bridge, to the sound post, to the front and back plates and the very air inside the instrument. But a flawed vibration like a buzz could have any number of causes, some minor, some very serious. The problem is identifying which cause, or combination of causes, is responsible for that flaw, and that is never simple. A violin, like the human body, is much more than the sum of its parts. Everything is interconnected; even the tiniest component is important and, when malfunctioning, can have an effect that far outweighs its size.

BOOK: Paganini's Ghost
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