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20 great violinists

Who are my favourite violinists? A list of 20, which I made for Sinfini Music in 2014, still largely stands, but is sure to provoke a response from fellow violin lovers

Classical music website Sinfini Music recently closed, a sad loss to the classical music world, and a minor – but I hope not fatal – defeat in the project of drawing in new audiences by telling great stories and generating exciting content. I certainly believe this is the future for classical music, and that Sinfini was maybe too far ahead of its time to work. I hope it will be reborn in some shape or form, and in the meantime, I have been allowed to post articles I wrote for the website. Seizing the bull by the horns, and standing by for dissent and ire, here is my very personal list of top 20 violinists, which I wrote for the site in July 2014. In the original article I included some caveats, but I will reiterate them now:

  • This is not a list of the ‘best-ever’ 20 violinists. That would be absurd.

  • This is not even a definitive list of my favourite 20 violinists – in fact, as I predicted in the article, they have subsequently changed, and I would probably swap at least two players. However, it stood at the time, so I won't change it.

  • I wanted to keep a balance between old and new, which roughly splits half and half, as well as recognising Baroque and jazz styles. I could, of course, have made a top 20 of each, but the commission was for 20.

  • Joshua Bell isn't my favourite – it‘s in alphabetical order.

So here is the article and list in its entirety, unedited. Please comment (politely if possible) at the end.

Since the violin emerged in the form we now know it in the 16th century there have been hundreds of thousands of violinists. Of those, maybe hundreds of great ones. So how to pick a top 20? What to look for?

Playing in tune, with good rhythm, respecting composers’ intentions, abiding by the rules of musical structure are all basic. Beyond that, what imagination or intellect does a player display? What colours do they have at their disposal? How well do they tell a story? What risks do they take? When you hear them, do you have to stop what you’re doing to listen, so forceful is their charisma? And then there is their individual sound, which is as personal as a singer’s voice.

In some ways these are mechanical matters and can be objectively analysed. But ultimately our response as listeners is instinctive, relating unconsciously to these factors, but also to our own personal taste. The 20 violinists I’ve chosen are all players whose performances speak to me and whose sounds please my ear, at this point in my life. It’s not been easy to choose – there are many other players both living and dead I would like to have included.

I’ve avoided debate comparing today’s players with those of the past by including as wide a spread as I can of historic players and living ones of all ages. It’s fruitless to be nostalgic when there are so many great players to listen to today, but at the same time it’s important to keep the old ways in mind and to learn from our forebears.

Players are listed in alphabetical order, as this is not in any way a ranking – it’s a list of 20 great players that I’ve enjoyed listening to most as I’ve done my research. Ask me next week and I’ll give you a different selection!

Joshua Bell (b.1967)

Joshua Bell may be one of the most famous and glamorous violinists on the planet right now, as likely to be seen playing for Dancing with the Stars or judging Miss America as gracing the stage of Carnegie Hall. But listen to his playing and you discover the paradox: an old-fashioned soul, full of innocence, tenderness and yearning. Nothing is forced or heavy – there’s exquisite delicacy and poetry in his use of colour and inflection, whether in concertos or the sonata repertoire. Maybe his international celebrity is proof, if needed, that the general public understands great playing when they hear it. In recent years he’s expanded his work to include leading the Academy of St Martins from the concertmaster chair.

Giuliano Carmignola (b.1951)

Italian violinist Giuliano Carmignola began his career winning the Paganini Competition and performing 20th-century works but these days concentrates on Classical and Baroque music, often focusing on Italian composers. Within the conventions of this repertoire he brings such grace and natural elegance in the fast music that the works feel newly minted, improvised, even, rather than being any sort of historic artifact or academic exercise. In slower music, such as the violin solos of Bach’s cantatas, there’s a raw sonority and a depth of feeling that is profoundly affecting, however you feel about historically informed performance.

James Ehnes (b.1976)

You only have to look at the breadth of Canadian violinist James Ehnes’s discography for evidence of his musical curiosity and openness. Over the last ten years his prolific recordings have ranged from Bartók, Barber, Bruch and Bach to Dallapiccola, Debussy, Dohnányi and Dvořák, with many in between. Each is performed with the appropriate respect for the composer’s style – his Elgar Concerto received rave reviews, notoriously difficult for a non-English player to achieve. There’s an old-fashioned sincerity and lack of fussiness to his playing, although he can strut his virtuosic stuff with the rest of them. He is also committed to chamber music, regularly performing with his group, the Ehnes Quartet.

Ivry Gitlis (b.1922)

You either love Ivry Gitlis’s playing or you loathe it – there can be no in between. Everything is extreme – tempos, intensity, phrasing, emotion. His playing is never safe or generic, such is his desire to communicate, to provoke a response. He was born in Israel but left to study in Paris aged twelve, going on to learn with Enescu and Ysaÿe, two of the towering violinists of the age, and then Flesch. Maybe because of his individuality he never quite had the performing and recording career he could have had. But he was probably too busy playing with John Lennon and the Rolling Stones, appearing on French television, acting in Truffaut films, and working as a UNESCO ambassador, to care.

Stéphane Grappelli (1908–1997)

Stéphane Grappelli is on this list not only as a representative of the jazz idiom but because in his own right he had a fantastic technique and one of the sweetest, sunniest sounds of all. As well swinging, his playing is highly expressive – maybe not surprising when he’s playing the vocal lines of standards, but he had an instinctive sense of musical phrasing. He started the violin relatively late, at twelve, and largely taught himself, although he did spend three years at the Paris Conservatoire. He founded the innovative Quintette du Hot Club de France with Django Rheinhardt, toured the world and created many successful collaborations, including one with Yehudi Menuhin. He is regarded by many as the father of jazz violin.

Ida Haendel (b.1928)

Even when she plays these days, well into her 80s, you might not find technical perfection in the playing of Ida Haendel, but you will find the intensity of sound, instinctive musicianship and the highly personal voice that mark her earlier career. Born in 1928 (or 1923, according to some sources) in Poland, Haendel graduated from the Warsaw Conservatoire and went on to study with Flesch and Enescu, two of the leading teachers of the day. Up until recently she maintained a busy international touring schedule and was the first Western player to perform in China in 1973, after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Her broad repertoire included 20th-century works such as the Britten and Walton concertos.

Jascha Heifetz (1901–1987)

Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that Heifetz’s playing is cold. It’s incandescent, thrilling, and deeply human. But the impassivity and focus of his stage demeanour confused people, and his technical perfection in the most fiendish of music seems unbelievable, even now, when standards are so high. Born in Vilnius in 1901, Heifetz was a prodigy, able to play the Mendelssohn Concerto by the age of six. He developed a complex personality, as prodigies invariably do, full of conflict and paradoxes, and some people feel that he ushered in a new era of a brash style playing. But for most violinists, Heifetz remains a benchmark.

Bronislaw Huberman (1882–1947)

It’s amazing to think that Huberman performed the Brahms Concerto in front of the composer himself, in 1896, to the great man’s approval. If that pinpoints him in the timeline of music then so does his playing, with its portamentos, wide vibrato and sometimes counter-intuitive (or personal, depending how you look at it) phrasing. Indeed, technically his playing might not stand up well against that of today’s stars, and yet there’s so much charm to his performances, such a sense of intention. He also carries a certain moral authority for his prescient actions in setting up the Palestine Symphony Orchestra as a way to save nearly 1,000 European Jews from Nazi concentration camps.

Janine Jansen (b.1978)

Dutch violinist Janine Jansen is a force of nature with technique to burn and a vast range of colour at her disposal. Her playing seems to come straight from the heart – passionate and impulsive, but intimate and charming, too. Having grown up in a family of musicians maybe it’s not surprising her musical intelligence seems so instinctive. She has played and recorded with some of the finest orchestras in the world, although her repertoire thus far has been relatively conservative. She is also a committed chamber music player, and has set up her own chamber music festival in Utrecht.

Leonidas Kavakos (b.1967)

Although he had won prizes in several international competitions by the age of 21, Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos took his time finally to get the public attention he deserves. For a long time he was something of a secret among violin lovers, with astonishing videos of his youthful performances of Paganini and other virtuosic works doing the rounds. His technique remains invincible, and working with more profound repertoire he brings a seriousness of intent, an enormous range of timbre that he’s not afraid to push to extremes, and impeccable attention to the composer’s detail. He also holds the distinction of being the only performer to have been sanctioned by Sibelius’s family to record the composer’s Violin Concerto in its first – and much more demanding – draft.

Fritz Kreisler (1875–1962)

Having graduated from the Paris Conservatoire at the age of twelve, Austrian-born Fritz Kreisler trained to be a doctor and subsequently served on the front line in the First World War. Perhaps these life experiences lent his playing the deep sense of wisdom and humanity that shines through the Viennese charm. It speaks so directly, with such grace, conjuring a different era. He was never one to practise much, but you wouldn’t know it from his recordings of virtuoso works, and his use of vibrato and portamento is effortlessly tasteful and expressive. He also composed many enchanting encore pieces and the most commonly played cadenza to the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

Gidon Kremer (b.1947)

Latvian-born Gidon Kremer kicked off his career by winning most of the major international violin competitions going. Since then his playing has done anything but conform to others’ expectations. He brings a creative, improvisatory spirit to whatever he plays, whether in crafting meaning or searching for sound qualities – he uses one of the broadest palettes of today’s violinists. This probing quality has led him to explore modern repertoire and he has premiered works by Pärt and Schnittke among many others. Since 1997 he has also directed Kremerata Baltica, a group of young players with a similarly broad range of repertoire.

Yehudi Menuhin (1916–1999)

Of all the child prodigies in this list, Yehudi Menuhin is probably the most remarkable. Einstein is supposed to have said on hearing him, ‘Now I know there is a God in heaven.’ Listen to Menuhin’s 1932 recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto, made at the tender age of 16 with the 75-year-old composer conducting, and you understand why. The violinist is able to identify completely with the wisdom and profound sentiment of the older man. He brought this vivid imagination and a deep musical understanding to the wide range of works and styles he championed. Later in his career his playing lost its technical confidence but he devoted himself to many humanist, pedagogical and musical causes.

Viktoria Mullova (b.1959)

It’s been fascinating to watch Viktoria Mullova’s career unfold since her defection from Soviet Russia in 1983. At that point she had won three of the top international violin competitions and arrived in the West with a standard repertoire and a brilliant Russian technique, full of power and authority. As time has gone by her playing has become more relaxed and intimate, while maintaining her musical thoroughness, and her programme choices have widened. She has explored jazz and world music styles in recent recordings and in 2009 she recorded the Bach Sonatas and Partitas on a period instrument with gut strings, revelling in the distance she had come from her Russian training.

Ginette Neveu (1919–1949)

If anyone tries to describe violin playing as masculine or feminine, point them to the Paris-born violinist Ginette Neveu. Her style is as forceful and weighty as that of any of the male players in this list, making a nonsense of the description. It’s also subtle, nuanced and highly personal. We’ll never know the full extent of her range and talent, for she died tragically young in a plane crash over the Azores on the way to a concert in 1949. But in her 30 short years she had established an international concert career and fortunately there are enough recordings of concertos and shorter works to know something of what was lost in that plane.

David Oistrakh (1908–1974)

David Oistrakh was a heavyweight player with a big, brassy sound well-suited to the big concertos of the repertoire. Indeed, he premiered many 20th-century ones, including those by Kabalevsky, Khachaturian and Shostakovich. Given that Shostakovich wrote his two violin concertos for Oistrakh and that the player was involved in revising them, his performances of the works could be seen as definitive. Like many great violinists of his generation, Oistrakh was born in Odessa, Ukraine. In the 1930s he won many international competitions, although he came second to Ginette Neveu in the 1935 Wieniawski Competition. Due to the war and subsequent political fall-out much of his career happened in Russia but he made up for this with international touring from the 1950s onwards.

Itzhak Perlman (b.1945)

Listening to Itzhak Perlman play encore pieces, you can’t help but smile, such is his generosity of spirit, humour and charm. But he also has range, power and technical brilliance in the great concertos. His gloriously sweet, warm tone has been copied by generations of students but few can match his instinctive sense of music and his charisma. He was born in Israel and came to fame in the US at the age of 13 when he was picked by Ed Sullivan to play on his show, subsequently remaining in New York. In the 1960s he was part of the musical clique of Barenboim, Zukerman and du Pré. These days he performs recitals occasionally but is mainly devoted to teaching.

Gil Shaham (b.1971)

The career of Gil Shaham began in dramatic fashion, when he was called in at the last minute to replace Itzhak Perlman in a concert series in London in 1989. He’s not looked back, having built up an extensive discography and a steady international touring schedule. His current project is to record violin concertos of the 1930s, the first volume including works by Barber, Berg, Stravinsky, Britten and Hartmann. The repertoire provides a rich seam for his romantic (but never self-indulgent) charm and the warmth of his core tone. And with his complete security of technique, he is always willing and able to take risks.

Joseph Szigeti (1892–1973)

Of all the players here, Szigeti was probably the least virtuosic – not that he didn’t have ample technique, but because he just became less interested in showy repertoire, and he never really possessed a huge sound. His humility, poetic intelligence and integrity towards the composer shines through in smaller repertoire. He premiered many new works, including by Prokofiev, Bloch and Rawsthorne. Ysaÿe was inspired to write his Solo Sonatas after hearing Szigeti performing Bach, and his lifelong friendship with Bartók led the composer to write his First Rhapsody for him. The recording of the two performing the work together along with other pieces is probably one of the greatest musical partnerships on record. Szigeti’s beautifully written texts about music and violin playing provided another outlet for his intellectual and curious nature, especially as the affects of age took their toll on his playing.

Pinchas Zukerman (b.1948)

Where his peer Itzhak Perlman’s playing is all sweetness and joy, there’s a brooding quality to Pinchas Zukerman’s playing, a seriousness which, when he feels like it, reaches into the profound. He also has one of the best tone production set-ups in the business – his bow hand is a model of efficient power. Like Perlman, he came from Israel to study in New York as a teenager, with Ivan Galamian, and made the US his home, although he has recently been working in Canada mainly as a conductor. He is also one of the finest viola players in the world. But don’t expect him to play Baroque music in authentic style – he has been known to rail against historically informed performance.

So, who would be on your top 20?

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