Playing the Nelms Violin

by Matthew Raley

For several weeks, I’ve been switching between my violin and one loaned to me by a friend who wants me to evaluate it.

Lee Nelms, 1979, top

You’ll recall that I had low expectations of this violin until I saw it in the case and played on it a little. Its tone was even, responsive, and capable of different colors even with poor strings.

So I put on an old set of my own strings (Evah Pirazzi, “stark”) and started testing the violin across a range of pieces. I played several Rode caprices, and the better strings made an immediate difference. The violin was resonant, spoke brightly, and barked accents at my command. Double-stops and chords, in which the bow is pulled across several strings quickly, were clear.

I got similar results in the Novácek Perpetuum Mobile. As I played through a couple of Beethoven sonatas I found an additional virtue. The violin was capable of real sweetness when I played lyrical passages. This was confirmed when I read through the 1st violin part to the Brahms clarinet quintet.

But I was always bothered when I would begin playing this violin. It would sound nasal, brash. One evening recently, I started with the 2nd movement of the Brahms quintet, and was able to isolate some of the pitches that squawked the worst. But after ten minutes or so, when I went back to those pitches, the squawk was gone.

Conclusion? This violin is grumpy right out of the case. It needs to warm up.

There are other qualities I wonder about. So I’m going to Redding violin maker John Harrison soon to see if he can find any information about Lee Nelms, and if the sound-post might need adjusting. I’m not one to waste a good excuse to go to Harrison’s shop.

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