Printer-friendly version

Masterworks and Mindblowers

Written by
Published: March 2, 2015 at 9:40 AM [UTC]


There seems to be a a fairly large body of opinion responding to the "Zimmerman Strad Problem," thread that is not very predisposed to classic violins. I have to admit the strength of opinion expressed surprised me a little, although I can't afford either so it doesn't affect me much!

Personally, I can understand and sympathize with the position of the pro-modern camp. There certainly are an awful lot of over-priced old violins out there that are not a patch on their modern relatives and yet have the mystique of name associated with them. Often to such an extent it seems that we can be blinded as to their true merits and relative value.

However, from another perspective, it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that those soloists using the absolute creme del creme of Guarneri or Strad find something in those instruments that makes them different from an exquisite and highly reliable modern. It is certainly true that these instruments often fail to prove superior to the listener in blind tests.

ZimmermannHowever, I am not sure this is the point. Great players like Zimmerman are, I suspect, much more finely attuned to something powerful and elusive in these instruments than the average player/listener, and it acts as their muse. Maybe it comes from a combination of age and the daily touch of a succession of great artists. I have no idea. But I do believe that this quality is real and it must be tangible enough to the greats that they are still willing to spent a number of years searching out the best possible way of playing such an instrument instead of playing on one of the many superb modern instruments now around. Of course, I have no rational basis for any of this but that is the privilege of blogging. 100 years down the road the instruments of Burgess et al will, in my opinion be the new Stradivari. Shame nothing is going to survive global warming.....

It's been a great week for finding new "stuff" on Youtube. My mind has been blown so often I sometimes feel totally discombobulated. Where to start....

Best find of the week was, without question, Gitlis playing the Adagio movement of the Bartok solo violin sonata. Gitlis doesn't seem to get mentioned much among the pantheon of great violinists for some reason. Maybe he just carried on a bit too long in a world that has far less tolerance for error and absolutely personal interpretations. Or maybe he did just a few too many concerts without practicing because he just didn't care. Didn't care in the nicest possible way. He is such a profoundly original and cosmopolitan artist it seems he needs to live to play rather than the other way round. On form he had one of the most terrifying techniques on the planet. Listen to the Bartok and weep. Then go to his Wieniawski Cappucino Valse in E major and look at the fast twitch up bow staccato. That's how it should be done!

Still on a slightly insane note but hidden behind a refined facade listen to the great Zimmerman playing the Bruch.

It's one of those performances that raises a rather interesting question: For most of us, playing what Bruch wrote with a few minor violinistic tweaks is the best we can do. Zimmerman quite unselfconsciously chooses to use bowing, phrasing or what not that suits his musical intent even when it differs (?) with what Bruch wrote to a considerable degree. Is this anti authenticity, or just simply that Zimmerman is such a great violinist he knows better than the composer how this piece should be played? For me he reinvents this work so it was almost like new to me. I had to go away and experiment with what he was doing. I leave it to you to decide.

Some of my favorite Bach is the accompanied sonatas. I have been frustrated by them for years as a player and a listener. There are many great performances by player of the past, the best of which may, to my ear be Szeryng. Then there are superb modern /authentic performances by Manze and the like. However, neither of these extremes has every completely satisfied me and I had just about given up until I stumbled across Mullova's version.

The great lady once again manages to synthesize the old and the new in a satisfactory way and I cannot recommend searching these performances out strongly enough.


(Here also, is her Chaconne:

You might also like:

Posted on March 2, 2015 at 11:59 PM
Stephen: You have very excellent taste -- Viktoria Mullova is totally amazing!!! Wish more people appreciated her.

From Gene Huang
Posted on March 3, 2015 at 1:20 AM
I agree that Mullova gives a very satisfying performance of Bach Chaconne. She makes it sound so easy, and when I listen to her I think -- "I can do that too". The feeling quickly disappears as soon as I actually try... ;)

From Gene Huang
Posted on March 3, 2015 at 1:26 AM
Btw, there is a video (not just the audio recording) of Mullova performing the same piece here:

From Paul Deck
Posted on March 3, 2015 at 1:51 AM
Mullova plays it in kind of a dry, stately way. Other recordings are more dug-in. I like it. I wonder if players choose a more detached style when they are in such a place as a cathedral.
Posted on March 3, 2015 at 1:52 AM
Mr Brivatti, I invite you to listen to Mischa Elman in this gorgeous quality LP recording. I spend a lot of time searching for the most perfect/elegant sound/phrasing and it shows up in Thibaud, Prihoda, Enescu, Zimbalist, Seidel and probably a few others I can't remember now, but Elman never seems to lose that perfection. I have more examples of this perfection (I'll post some more if you want) but this is maybe the best example from Elman.

When I hear this my soul melts, I get shivers on my whole body and my eyes get moist. In that order in the first minute :P

Posted on March 3, 2015 at 10:40 AM
I like her chaconne a lot, but it isn't the subject of this blog;)


From Peter Williamson
Posted on March 3, 2015 at 3:54 PM
Fascinating selection, as usual. You may be aware that the Gitlis Bartok used to be available in a Vox 2-CD set including an equally awesome performance of the (Bartok) second concerto, along with Sibelius, Mendelssohn, a somewhat truncated Tchaikovsky and some others. I can't remember much about it except the two Bartok items which are unforgettable!
I didn't find Zimmerman's Bruch particularly 'way-out', but it's not a piece I listen to often. I enjoyed it - magnificent playing and nothing routine about it. Mullova's Bach too, although I found myself wishing she would 'let go' more at the big climaxes - it's all a little held-back for my taste (or lack of it). But the restraint pays off in so many places where others pile on the tone and the vibrato with much less discrimination. I'll investigate Szeryng.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 3, 2015 at 4:09 PM
My apologies, Buri, I put the wrong Youtube in there for you! Everyone, I've fixed it so that Mullova's accompanied Bach appears in the appropriate place, as that is what Buri is speaking about. But since I originally put her distractingly good Chaconne in there also, I left it at the end for those who would still like to discuss that! Best, Laurie
From Tom Holzman
Posted on March 3, 2015 at 10:27 PM
Interestingly, Oistrakh made a wonderful recording of the Bach accompanied sonatas with a harpsichord player named Paul Pischner. I got them from someone who made the recording off of LPs, and I doubt they are really available. However, if you can hear them, they are gorgeous.
Posted on March 4, 2015 at 4:41 AM
thanks you for the Elman recommendation. Actually I have been listening to mischa, Jascha, toscha et al. for more years than I would care to say. Of the whole crew, if I really had to make a choice it would be Kreisler and later Milstein but would miss Szigeti like crazy. However, my current purpose in listening and writing is a little different.

There is no doubt that violinists do things differently now. Of course, things like modern strings, shoulder rests and competitions have all changed the type of sound we here but also perhaps how music is approached too. So the question in my mind was whether the golden age of the fiddle was dead and a step back has been taken to uniformity and bland. perfection. In seeking to answer this question I am listening to more modern players to see if they have anything to offer, whether they are individually recognizable and so on.
My personal response is a guarded yes. With some listening it is not that much more difficult to pick out Hahn, Vengerov, Bell, Kavakos, Mullova et al. And although the sound is generally less throbbing and tormented soul searching in essence , in other ways it is just as rewarding and satisfying to listen to these players as it is to the old. I also find new and interesting things that indicate an ongoing evolution in playing and sound. For example, Gringolts version of the Paginini Caprices is ground breaking and offers up new kinds of ideas for the violin. The problem is not to lose those beautiful and amazing things from the past. The sad thing is, even when I was a student, many of my fellow students had never even heard Heifetz or the young Menuhin play. And this was the RCM. I have never forgotten how weird and even tragic that seemed to me.
What I hope to do in my selections is to, in a modest way, save the reader time in finding the 'best' or perhaps just interesting version of something that is worth taking possession of.
In the same vein, I have heard Oistrakh playing the accompanied Bach, as well as Grumiaux, Szeryng and more players of that statue than I would care to name. In the cas eof Oistrakh I would never say it was anything other than superb but then everything of his is. But I think bach in general and these pieces in particular can take a very romantic violinists baroque approach and blow you away. At the same time , just for me, this is only one view of it which I find it doesn't quite meet what I feel and want. Probably Milstein would be the closest version for me of that generation but I don't have it , if it exists. To me , Oistrahks version is like a Van Gogh or Kandinsky painting. But I want something more like an exquisite stained glass window that gives that sensuality but let's through Bachs divine light. In my opinion, the result of a century of struggle and controversy over how 'real' violinists should play Bach has resulted in interpretations like that of Mullova that come closer to my ideal of what it can be.

From Paul Deck
Posted on March 4, 2015 at 5:57 AM
Heh ... I wondered if "accompanied" was a typo but decided not to risk being a grammar troll.
From Kate Little
Posted on March 4, 2015 at 6:21 AM
Thank you, Buri. I enjoyed listening to your selections.
Posted on March 4, 2015 at 8:45 AM
Our brains and bodies were pretty much the same from at least 10.000 years up to now, only the environment changed. Of course people in the past were still people and just as musical and soulful. But now the environment is different. Nobody cares for the lush sound, voice like quality, supreme sensitivity to the touch of the bow that gut strings provide. People just want a big sound to fill the hall. They don't want to put too much effort in maintenance and bowing technique other than staccato or riccochet or whatnot because they have so much left hand technique to worry about, let alone tweaking the timing that Elman does so beautifully, why would you tweak the timing? Touching souls with music can't be more important than perfect rhythm, right?. If you can't play Paganini nowadays you are worthless. People listen to Elman and say he's outdated, his slides are weird, timing is wrong, intonation is off (I'm not sure about this one but it's said about other old players) and somehow the beauty just foregoes them. It's unbelievable. They are right about one thing; it's outdated. When I heard that recording of Elman I was pinching myself, not believing that it was real, it was more beautiful than anything I had ever imagined. Also people put the shoulder "crutch" on as if it has no impact. If you fail to realise how much the shoulder rest impairs movement and sound you simply fail as an artist in my opinion. People think that Huberman is simply a strange mediocre player. I would be hard pressed to name 5 violinists that can play nearly as beautifully as him.

Here are two korean (?) young ladies playing with as much soul as you would want, this is one of the exceptions.

This young lady is another extraordinary exception

Here is some from the good old people :) Don't forget to put it on the highest quality, it makes a big difference:

An explosion of color by Zimbalist and Sarasate

Perhaps my favorite Menuhin recording

It's said that Casals called him the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart

This made me fall in love with high quality LP recordings

Enescu playing Mozart's 7th VC

I know that posting so much at once makes it highly unlikely that you'll listen to all of them, but I'm an idiot that way. I just can't leave one of them out :P

I think looking for reasons to see say the old were just as good as the new is like rationalizing religion. That is using twisted logic to make observed reality match your beliefs instead of being honest.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 4, 2015 at 11:48 PM
actually the 'the great leap forward,' theory that holds human evolution more or less stopped forty thousand years ago is being increasingly challenged by many scientists and researchers. There are innumerable genetic changes in recent times including things like malaria resistance, blue eyes, lactose tolerance and so on. The IQ test is an interesting case. In terms of simple statistics, today's average human scores significantly higher than for example 100 years ago. That is why IQ test have been adjusted so that we don't have the embarrassing problem of the least intelligent in our society scoring higher than Winston Churchill, which would actually happen. A close look at this weird phenomenon show the skewing occurs becaus ewe score substantially higher on things like human empathy and compassion these days. Thus it was much more normal for countries to condone and go to war in the early part of the 20 C than it is now, blips aside. For a detailed explanation of this see Pinkers book, the Angel inside us, or something like that... I have an IQ problem at this time in the morning.
As for the rest I am non shoulder rest using devotee of violinists of the past so I am not entirely sure why you are preaching to the converted;) There is no doubt about the quality of Elmans playing and the suggestion he played out of tune is just silly. The clips offered as following in his footsteps are lovely but really not that great after a while. Hardly in the same class as elman.Huberman is a little more complex because he wasn't entirely able to embrace and join in with the sea change that elman wa sin part responsible for. At his best he is sublime. On occasion he can sound less than interesting. I have most of his recordings and listen to them a lot.
But to dismiss modern players is , in my opinion simply to express a prejudice as deep as those who say older players are no good. I ask my students to listen to everything and make up their own minds. personally I cannot say, for example , that vengerov playing a Handel sonata is less musical or profound than Szigeti and the sound quality is certainly better.
In the end it boils down to personal preference. Personally, I weep and shudder at tsunamis and mans inhumanity to man. I feel deep pleasure and satisfaction listening to elman et al. Then I might go and brush my teeth or take a dump. what we want to take from music I think is up to the individual and cannot be imposed on others. The only important thing is to keep an open mind and try everything.
Posted on March 5, 2015 at 11:02 AM
It's no use getting a heated discussion about old vs new, because maybe it really does boil down to personal opinion, I don't know. You should know that I'm eternally grateful for these modern players that I can inferior to the old masters because they are still musicians. And they still touch the souls of so many millions of people, showing them that life is not always mundane, giving them a moment of euphoria. Many top soloists probably make more people happy in a single concert than I will in an entire lifetime. I feel a bit phony talking like this but I just wanted to share it.

Cheers, and keep playing people!! :)

From Brent Hudson
Posted on March 6, 2015 at 5:13 PM
Isn"t it so that most people forced to accept one side of the issue will become strong supporters of that side? You seldom hear a Strad player denigrate their instrument or wish they could get hold of a good modern. Good instruments are rare, antique OR modern . . .

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine