Top Five Historical Violinists

There are many brilliant violinists around today, and tomorrow I will share with you my five favourite modern day violinists. But all of these violinists are built on the shoulders of the greats who came before them. While in my opinion the Romantic period of classical music (1830-1900) is the period that produced the greatest violin works, it is in the 20th Century that the best violin performances dominated. These giants still influence modern thought and stylistic interpretation, and today I want to share with you my favourites. And thanks to the wonderful world that is YouTube, we have live recordings and performances of all of them.

5. Ginette Neveu

Ginette Neveu is the greatest violinist that you’ve never heard of. A French violinist, born in 1919, her solo debut at age 7 saw her playing the Bruch Violin Concerto Number 1 at the Salle Gaveu in Paris, and she performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the Colonne Orchestra that same year. At the age of 9, she won the École Supérieure de Musique and the City of Paris Prix d’Honneur. She then went the the Conservatoire de Paris, and studied with Juled Boucherit, George Enescu, Nadia Boulanger and Carl Flesch.

At Age 15, Neveu won the Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition, where she beat David Oistrakh, aged 27 at the time, in both the priliminary round and the final. After this, she was signed to an extensive touring contract that saw her perform all over the world. She recorded the Sibelius Violin Concerto, which remains her most highly praise work, to which Sibelius said

“I particularly wish to speak of my feeling of profound gratitutde when I think of the inspired and extremely sensitive performance of my Violin Concerto which Genitte Neveu rendered unforgettable.”

Jean Sibelius

The reason you’ve likely never heard of Neveu is that her life was tragically cut short. Her last concert was given in Paris on 20 October 1949, and then one week later, on October 27, her flight from Paris to New York crashed into a mountain after two failed attempt to land at the Santa Maria Airport in the Axores. All 48 people died, including her brother Jean Neveu, and only the scroll of her Omobono Stradivari violin has been found.

The only live performance of Neveu that I can find is this extract of Chausson Poème. There are other recordings available on YouTube, and there are Recordings available on Amazon.

4. David Oistrakh

Ukrainian born in 1908 into a Jewish Family, David Oistrakh started learning the violin and the viola at the age of five under Pyotr Stolyarsky, and performed his debut concert at the age of six. He entered the Odessa Conservatory in 1923, graduating in 1926. The following year, he relocated to Moscow and performed extensively. By 1934, he was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory, where he would be made professor in 1939.

During World War II, Oistrakh would be highly active within the Soviet Union, premiering now works by Khachaturian and Prokofiev. A blossoming friendship with Shostakovich in the final years of the war would see two violin concertos and a violin sonata dedicated to Oistrakh by Shostakovich, and Oistrakh premiered all of these works and they became firmly associated with him. Not allowed to perform abroad by the Societ Union, he continued to teach in Moscow, and would visit the front lines of the war to perform for soldiers and factory workers under difficult conditions.

After the war, Oistrakh was finally allowed to travel, giving his first concert in the West in Helsinki in 1949, touring around Europe and eventually being allowed to visit the United States in 1955. By 1959, he started establishing a second career as a conductor. After conducting a cycle of Brahms with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Oistrakh died from his second heart attack in Amsterdam in 1974.

There are many great recordings available, but I can’t go past this box set of Oistrakh’s complete EMI Recordings. And there are many live performances on YouTube, but I’ve chosen his performance of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto Number 1.

3. Fritz Kreisler

Born in 1875, Austrian born violinist and Composer Fritz Kreisler was almost a medical doctor, but thankfully returned to become one of the greatest violinists of all time, characterised by his sweet tone and expressive phrasing.

Kreisler studied at the Vienna Conservatory under Anton Bruckner, Jakob Dont and Joseph Hellmesberger Jr, and later in Paris under Léo Delibes, Lambert Massart and Jules Massenet. He won the Premier Grand Prix de Rome gold medal at age 12, and made his United States debut in 1888, followed by a US Tour with Moriz Rosenthal until 1889. Upon his return to Australia, he was unsuccessful in his application for a position with the Vienna Philharmonic, and left music to study medicine. However, he returned to music in 1899, giving a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic which, along with a series of American tours from 1901-1903, brought him real acclaim.

He commissioned Elgar to write a violin concerto for him, and gave the premier in 1910. He served in the Austrian Army during World War I, and was honourably discharged after being wounded and arrived in New York in November 1914. In 1924, he returned to Europe, first living in Berlin then France, but after the outbreak of World War II, he returned to the US where he remained for the rest of his life.

Along with his performances, Kreisler was a talented composer, writing many pieces for the Violin and Piano, often in the style of other composers. He originally ascribed these pieces to these composers, but later revealed that it was he that had written them.

I’ve had for a long time his recordings of the Beethoven Sonatas. as well as two different recordings he made of the Beethoven and Mendelssohn violin concerti, one made in 1926 with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, and one recorded in 1935-36 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra with John Barbirolli and Landon Ronald. It’s interesting to compare the two recordings and see how it has developed over the ten years.

Perhaps of all his compositions, the most famous is Liebesfreud and Liebesleid, which were originally falsly attributed to Joseph Lanner. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any live vision of Kreisler playing, but here is a recording of Kreisler playing his composition, Liebesfreud.

2. Jascha Heifetz

Born in the Russian Empire (later Lithuania) in 1901, Heifetz started playing the violin before he was two years old. He started lessons with Elias Malkin at age four, and made his public debut playing the Mendelssohn concerto at age seven. At age 9, he entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory to study under Ovanes Nalbandian, and later Leopold Auer. In 1912, Heifetz met Kreisler for the first time at a private press matinee where Heifetz played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, to which Kreisler said,

“We may as well break our fiddles across our knees.”

Fritz Kreisler, on hearing Jascha Heifetz play for the first time.

After performing with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1914, the conductor Arthur Nikisch said he had never heard such an excellent violinist.

Heifetz and his family left Russia in 1917, arriving in San Francisco. On October 27, 1917, Heifetz performed at Carnegie Hall for the first time. Violinist Mischa Elman was in the audience, here he said to pianist Leopold Godowski “Do you think it’s hot in here?” to which Godowski replied “Not for pianists.”

Shortly after his Carnegie Hall Debut, Heifetz made his first recordings for RCA Victor, where he remained for most of his career. His recordings are highly distinctive, with Itzhak Perlman saying Heifetz preferred to record relatively close to the microphone, which would give the recording a somewhat different tone quality than a concert hall performance.

Heifetz commissioned a number of pieces, including Walton’s Violin Concerto, during World War II, and also arranged a number of pieces. He has a huge recording legacy, and after he ceased giving performances after a partially successful operation on his right shoulder in 1972, Heifetz taught extensively at UCLA, the University of Southern California, and from his home in Beverly Hills. You can get a DVD of the complete collection of Master Classes that Heifetz taught as USC.

There are many great performances of Heifetz on YouTube, but I couldn’t go past his performance of the Bach Chaconne recorded in 1970.

1. Yehudi Menuhin

Now I’m sure there will be many people who are upset that I put Menuhin in the number 1 spot ahead of Heifetz. And that’s fine. If you want to make your own list, go ahead and do it. But this is my list, and this is the violinist that I’m choosing to put at number 1. My last teacher was a student of Menuhin, so I have a linkage there.

Menuhin was born in America to a family of Lithuanian Jews. He started learning to play the violin at age four, showing exceptional talent, and had his first public appearance at seven years of age as a soloist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1923. Following this performance, Louis Persinger agreed to teach him and and accompanied him on his first few recordings.

The Menuhins eventually moved to Paris, and Persinger recommended that Menuhin study with his old teacher, Eugène Ysayë, however they didn’t click. Instead, Menuhin studied with Romanian composer and violinist George Enescu, and later with Adolf Busch.

His first concerto recording was the Bruch G minor Concerto in 1931, and he followed that up with Elgar’s Concerto in B minor, with Elgar conducting in 1932, the Paganini D Major concerto in 1934, and between 1934 and 1936 recorded the first complete recording of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by J.S. Bach. He commissioned a work by Béla Bartók due to Menuhin’s interest in Bartók’s work, which was the Sonata for Solo Violin, a work that ended being the composer’s penultimate composition.

He played for Allied soldiers during World War II, and alongside English Composer Benjamin Britten, performed for surviving inmates of a number of concentration camps in July 1945. He also returned to Germany in 1947 to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic, the first Jewish musician to do so in the wake of the Holocaust, with an aim to reconciliate and rehabilitate Germany’s music and spirit.

Menuhin’s musical interest wasn’t limited to the classical repertoire. He partnered with master sitar player Ravi Shankar, in a number of performances including a piece commissioned by composer Alan Hovhaness that is the earliest known work for sitar and western symphony orchestra. He also worked with jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli in the 1970s, releasing an album together of 1930s classics.

He has a massive catalogue of recorded works, having been signed to EMI for almost 70 years. As such, there are two massive box sets of his recordings – a 51-CD retrospective titled Yehudi Menuhin: The Great EMI Recordings released in 2009, and an 80-CD collection released in 2016, the centenary of Menuhin’s birth, titled The Menuhin Century.

There are many performances on YouTube, I’ve selected a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto.

So there are my selections. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Who is your favourite?

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