Many have tried over the centuries to explain the amazing responsiveness of Stradivarius violins, some saying it is the wood from a particular era grown in a cold period in Europe’s history, while others say it’s the varnish, or the chemicals used by Cremona makers to treat the wood used in violins against insect attack. Joseph Nagvary is one of the latter. A Hungarian-born biochemist and luthier, Nagvary analysed both the varnish and the insect treatment techniques of the old masters, and is convinced that he can reproduce the Strad sound qualities in his own instruments through the right treatment of the timber and the right varnish.
Personally, I’m skeptical. Far more tonality comes from the way the wood is shaped and thicknessed, and if you look at most strads and Guarnerius instruments – most have either had much of the original varnish worn away, or have been re-varnished – and that doesn’t seem to have affected their tone greatly. Moreover, other scientific research into the Stradivarius varnish shows it to have been little or no different from the standard furniture varnishes used in his time. So I’m still on the side of those who believe a mini ice-age in Europe in the years preceding the making of the Cremona instruments gave rise to the unique tonal stability of those instruments – along with the particular craftsmanship of the top makers of that time.