The Cremonese Tradition: Back to Back offers a triptych of three superb violins from the Cremonese school; the Ex-"Rochester" Stradivarius (1720) from Stradivari's golden period (1700-1720); a Guernari del Gesu made in 1742; and the "Spanish" Stradivarius (from 1736, the maker's ninety-first year), which is of somewhat less certain provenance but is from the same period and quality. Cremona is a small city at the edge of the Italian Alps which produced a series of violinmakers who have never been surpassed. In a blind listening test, judges such as renowned violinist Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zuckerman could not agree about the special or superior sound of Stradivarius violins compared to other great violins, yet violinists adore them for their greater ease of play, which affects their feeling and interpretation of the music. This is true on this CD as well, as can be heard in Michael Antonello's interpretations and how they are affected by which violin he chooses. The secret to the Stradivarius sound has been speculated upon for centuries, without any theory being proven for certain. The wood used at the time was of unusually high density (proven by examination of tree rings) caused by a period of cold Croatian winters. Alpine wood in any case grows slowly and densely, as it must withstand harsh winds and cold temperatures. Stradivari stored his violin wood underwater in a Venice lagoon for ten years, causing pores to grow where the wood rotted away, before Stradivari used it to build an instrument. Each violin was a combination of Spruce, willow, and maple treated with various minerals and the varnish a mix of Arabian gum, honey, and egg white. Aside from whatever chemical processes may have produced the unique sonority, there is the social circumstance of Stradivari's life; he was a big success while he was alive, and was lucky enough to live to age ninety-two (perhaps some of his secret varnish go absorbed into his skin, thus preserving him far past the normal lifespan of his time!). His longevity combined with financial stability enabled him to do far more experimenting than other violinmakers. On each of his violins, Giuseppe Guarneri (1698-1744) printed on the inner label a Roan Cross, and this his violins acquired the nickname, del Gesu. Though he produced far fewer instruments that Stradivari, many violinist find his violins superior, though del Gesu's name does not have the cache of a Stradivarius. The great Italian violin tradition, whose design has been the archetype for the ideal instrument since the mid-16th century, began in Cremona, starting with the luthier Andrea Amati, born in 1505. His teacher was da Martinego, a Jewish convert to Catholicism living in Cremona. Cremona has always been a small but wealthy cultural center, a prize in the battle of the centuries of armies from France, Germany, Switzerland, Milan, Spain, Venice, and Austria, before it finally settled as part of Italy. The greatest composer before Bach, Claudio Monteverdi, was born in Cremona in 1567. Perhaps it was the cultural churnings from multifarious foreign occupations and sackings of the city that converted it into a cosmopolitan place that encouraged experimentation and innovation, rather than slavish copying, which was the tradition among violinmakers outside of Cremona. The fiercely competitive Cremona violinmakers were all great experimenters. The viols and ad hoc string instruments before Andrea Amati show great creativity in looks and design, but Amati put his efforts and imagination toward sound and durability. His family handed down the Amati secrets through the generations until grandson Niccolo lost his family to a series of plagues and famines, and, unwilling to allow his secrets to be lost forever, he decided to take on pupils to carry on the tradition. His three most famous pupils were Ruggeri, Guarneri, and Stradivari. Although it is generally thought that the old Cremona violins have always been appreciated, it is not true. A growing fashion for lesser quality but much cheaper German instruments, along with yet another sacking of Cremona, left the violin business in ruins, and the Cremonese reputation dimmed, until, in the 1820's the old violins underwent a rebirth. They had been lying unused or unknown for many decades, until a failed violist but successful dealer, Luigi Tarisio, born in Milan, made it his mission to search out these rare violins and bring them to Paris. (Antonello's Ex-"Rochester" is typical, in that it's provenance can only be traced back to 1827. The violin rebirth came at the same time as the rebirth of the performance of Bach, when old music began to appear on concert programs, which had before consisted mostly of contemporary music. Tarisio learned to travel around northern Italy carrying new, shiny but worthless modern violins, which he would trade for old Cremona violins found lying in attics in disrepair. In one exchange, he traded a new violin with a monk who wanted a new fiddle for his own amusement. In recompense, the monk gave Traisio six Stradivarius violins! (In 2010, a 1697 Stradivarius known as The Molitor, once owned by Napoleon, was sold at auction for $3,600,000.) As word spread of this young man willing to trade new violins for old, dusty ones, Tarisio soon found himself in possession of multiple Stradivari, del Gesus, Amatis, Storonis, Guadaninis, Ruggeris, and more. When Tarisio died in 1855, his dealer in Paris, Vuillaume, a successful violinmaker in his own right, rushed down to Milan to scoop up 144 violins lying in Tarisio's attic, including Stradivari's last, the Messiah violin, which had never been played. Although Antonello has given concerts featuring both violins, he has been concentrating for years on his EX-"Rochester" Stradivarius, while loaning the del Gesu to Steven Copes, concertmaster of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Adventure seems to follow these old violins, and Antonello is no exception. On a vacation with his family in Montana, Mike discovered the Amtrak station that he'd left his Stradivarius in his hotel room. After depositing his family on the train, he returned to the hotel, and then raced the train to it's next stop, only to arrive a minute after it's scheduled departure. However, the conductor broke with Amtrak protocol and held the train for him. Why? The conductor wanted to see (and hear) that violin. Several years later, Mike was traveling by train through Switzerland to visit a friend in Italy, after finishing a recording session in Kiev. Tow day before, a Stradivarius had been stolen in Germany. The Italian border police, on the alert, thought they had their man, in spite of Mike's ability to play the violin (evidently thieves who can play the Tchaikovsky violin concerto at concert tempo are a dime a dozen in Italy). Through the police released Mike after a few hours, it took six weeks and a hefty legal bill to return the violin to the United States. Notes by Peter Arnstein.