Is Hilary Hahn the Greatest Violinist of Our Time?

August 11, 2008 at 02:56 AM · Is Hilary Hahn the violin legend of our time? Look at what is unfolding before us. As Hilary Hahn works her way through the cycle of recording the greatest violin concertos, she consistently approaches or meets the benchmark for those works: The recordings of Brahms/Stravinsky, Beethoven/Bernstein, Barber/Meyer and Shostakovich/Mendelssohn are amazing, to name just a few. Plus she has made fabulous recording of other recording works, like her amazing debut as a teenager of the Bach sonatas and partitas.

Because of personal tastes, not everyone will love all her recordings. Personally, I dislike her way-to-fast recording of the Bach violin concerto in E major, although I repect her technique on the recording and her interpretation of concerto for two violins. (I hope she re-records the E major in a decade or two with a regular interpretation). Yet the number of her homeruns compares favorably to Itzhak Perlman, Jascha Heifetz or anyone else.

And then this spring she released yet another benchmark or near-benchmark recording of the "unplayable" Schoenberg concerto with a performance of the Sibelius concerto that shows a very special and mature touch.

One reason I am writing this is because, in a previous discussion of the Bach concerto (I dislike), I regret that I said something along the lines that her technique is astonishing but that her best years of artistic interpretation are still ahead. She has already arrived.

If her best years are still ahead... hmmm...


August 11, 2008 at 03:39 AM · Personally, I dislike characterizing artists of any stripe as "the best."

This is a title more suitably bestowed on athletes and others whose exploits are objective and quantifiable.

August 11, 2008 at 04:44 AM · "Personally, I dislike characterizing artists of any stripe as "the best."

This is a title more suitably bestowed on athletes and others whose exploits are objective and quantifiable. "

Agree 100%

She is one of the best in the world in my book though but more important she is a truly wonderfull human being

If Hilary is playing where you live go and see her even if you are not a huge fan of her violinplaying

August 11, 2008 at 05:13 AM · She is! Until she does a stupid busking trick, then it'll be a two-way tie.

August 11, 2008 at 10:33 AM · This is an art, not a game where you have winners and losers (and the winners line up in rank order behind "the best").

I still like that Bartok quote: "Competition is for horses, not artist."

But in the rarified atmosphere of great violinists, Ms. Hahn belongs.


August 11, 2008 at 01:45 PM · I agree that there is no such thing as "the best." I tend to think in terms of "my favorites" or "at the highest level."

None-the-less, we live in a world that likes to make lists of "the best;" rankings of the greatest presidents, the best recordings, the best violins, such as Strad and del Gesu, the legendary musicians, the "performances of the century," etc. Go to any mainstream media site, like US News or CNN, or pick up the latest edition of the Penguin Guide to Classical Music rating "the best" classical records.

Rankings are one way to clarify information about a subject, especially when a consumer considers the purchase of a ticket or music download.

The point I think I was trying to make is that the number of achievements Hahn has accomplished "at the highest level" is surprising and easy to overlook -- until someone comes along and publishes a list of "the best."

August 11, 2008 at 12:21 PM ·

August 11, 2008 at 12:23 PM ·

August 11, 2008 at 12:59 PM · Watch Aaron Rosand and then watch Hillary. I rest my case.

August 11, 2008 at 01:03 PM · Is strawberry rhubarb PIE the best PIE evar?

August 11, 2008 at 03:22 PM · No way, blueberry is :-)

August 11, 2008 at 03:30 PM · I don't really like her. Sure, she has great technique but musically, she doesn't do anything for me. Give me Michael Rabin anyday

August 11, 2008 at 03:53 PM · Her technical capacity is probably top is the world - Watch her recital from Verbier (?) on youtube - She has lined up some of the utmost difficult pieces in the repertoire and plays them back-to-back with the utmost poise and seeming nonchalance.

I also like her unique, concentrated, penetrating, sound.

That said, I second the other comments that we're getting somewhat petty if we're to pick a "best" violinist. There is something to be appreciated in almost everyone's playing, and certainly it depends from piece to piece and even the listener's mood on a given day.

August 11, 2008 at 05:29 PM · For me, this is very very interesting.

I was put off Ms Hahn by her extraordinarily vacuous comments on "The Art of the Violin". I couldn't believe that a person who would say such things for a documentary could possibly have any deeper understanding of the music.

No doubt she would be in tune, and in time, and clear and play with great articulation. But she seemed like a numbskull to me, on that showing.

Now this thread makes me wonder otherwise (and casts doubt on what I think is needed to be able to play.

What cd would you recommend to show me how Hilary Hahn is the greatest modern day player?


August 11, 2008 at 06:07 PM · I don’t understand why everyone loves her playing so much (please tell me!)...technical perfection yes...but that is it. Maybe that’s the way it should be...just play what’s on the paper, no more, no less.

I'm sticking with blueberry.

August 11, 2008 at 06:58 PM · Graham,

she was very young when that was filmed. She was also very young when she made that unaccompanied Bach CD (too young, IMO, though she certainly had the chops). She's an amazing player, but right now I would not put the stamp of "THE BEST" on her playing or anyone else's.

August 11, 2008 at 07:02 PM · Graham,

Funny, I had the opposite reaction to Hilary Hahn's comments in the 'Art of the Violin' video. To me, they were interesting little nuggets - violinistic observations (often from the everyday life of a performer) that seemed to balance out the more general musical commentary from the older generations.

August 12, 2008 at 03:05 AM · Her album of the Brahms violin concerto and the Stravinsky violin concerto won a Grammy Award. That is probably a good album to start with. Listen to that album. Otherwise, Hahn's excellent recording of the Beethoven violin concerto would be a terrific choice.

For more challenging listening, her critically-acclaimed album of the extremely-difficult Barber violin concerto and the Meyer concerto (written for her) shows her technical mastery at just age 20, as does her most recent release of the "unplayable" Schoenberg concerto -- although not everyone enjoys listening to that kind of challenging music. Several other albums are listed at the top of this discussion, plus others here have said you can find her videos on U-Tube.

By the way, I am not saying that Hahn is my favorite violinist. On the contrary, I am probably a little surprised at what she is accomplishing at only 20-something in this era, relative to what the "greatest" violinists achieved in their times. It probably helps that she tours the world over and over.

August 11, 2008 at 07:27 PM · She speaks extremely well, completely the opposite of "vacuous." I know, because I spoke with her, for quite a long time. And I thought she certainly belonged on the "Art of Violin." Sometimes I think people hold the view that one must be male and dead, or near-dead, in order to be a great violinist. Not the case. Don't mistake a young and female voice for "vacuous."

August 11, 2008 at 08:04 PM · Sex and intelligence aside (argument for a different thread I suppose), the backing of a deep-pocketed label that promotes the hell out of her is the main (if not only) reason she is so popular. So I say "work it girlfriend" hehe

August 11, 2008 at 08:49 PM · Hey Jonathan,

Schoenberg once quipped that a violinist would have to have a sixth finger to play the Schoenberg violin concerto -- that's how impossible it is to play. It is virtually extinct because it is nearly "unplayable." I don't think any of the supposed "greatest" violinists attempted it.

With that backdrop in mind, Hilary Hahn surprised everyone by pulling that "unplayable" piece from obscurity and completely dominating it, bringing it into the concert catalog -- at least when she's in town. "Astonishing" is not too strong of a word.

So when you say that a good publicity department with deep pockets is "the main (if not only) reason she is so popular," you may want to reconsider your reasoning. Publicity is certainly an important element in creating a star, but there is much more to it than that with Ms. Hahn. Plus, her career has only just begun.

August 11, 2008 at 09:08 PM · Brahms and Stravinsky...ok.


August 11, 2008 at 08:57 PM · I stick with my reasoning as there is not a seriously dedicated professional solo violinist on the planet that cannot "play" that concerto. It's possible that since Ms. Hahn is bringing the concerto back into vogue (it's been recorded and performed before) more violinists will be adding this to their repertoire. For this she should be applauded, that is all. Our Columbus, in this case, has "discovered" a wonderful piece, make sure to send your "thank you" letters to DG for being such innovators. This mass hysteria is a little ridonkeydonk considering soooo many pieces have been deemed "unplayable" throughout history...just knowing the piece is "unplayable" really makes me want to give it a listen :-) Off to the record store

August 11, 2008 at 09:07 PM · Hmmmm. And all this time, I thought Perlman was.

August 11, 2008 at 09:32 PM · Graham -

I had a similar reaction to aov. But we don't know what happened there. I didn't think it was "extraordinarily vacuous"; only that she (or somebody) didn't make the most of it. I suspect she is or was an average bloomer in some areas that aren't connected with violin. But I was real impressed by what she said in Laurie's interview, and it gave me the impression that she was hitting her stride now in those things as well. Aov seems like a bit of a strange exception now, in fact. You know, what's required to play isn't some deep historical knowledge, or the ability to work differential equations for that matter; what's required is just the ability to play. You ought to know that from your jazz world acquaintances. My theory goes that one may be able to make use of those extras somehow and create more interesting things, but it's just a theory.

About this time last year I saw a video from Red Square, a live performance (outdoors, on a chilly night I hear) with her, Bell, and Zukerman. I really liked her best, thought she was the most interesting by far. Very entertaining. Nice Bach double with her and Z. too.

August 11, 2008 at 09:31 PM · Ah, Jim, that stuff about Elman's nail length, and scroll height???

Still, I have just bought the Stravinsky/Brahms album, so at least I will be giving her a proper chance.


August 11, 2008 at 09:42 PM · No, it was mainly the guitar players have long fingernails on their _left_ hand (if you choose to interpret what she said that way). I blame the producer really. I wonder if they'd have fixed a big sneeze in the middle of it :)

Shame you can't hear the Red Sq. vid. Very live and immediate feeling. For CDs, I heard Lark Ascending from some disc and thought it was great.

August 11, 2008 at 09:40 PM · Just been reading the interview with Laurie:-

"Hilary: ... ...It doesn't matter how a melody is constructed, it's still a melody. It doesn't matter whether a structural element is there because a composer woke up with it from a dream, or they sat down and mapped it out. It doesn't really matter. That's all in the music, and it's all there to be interpreted. People draw their inspiration from different areas, and whatever helps them express what they want to express musically should not be the determining factor for how it's interpreted.

Our idea of melody is really quite random. Just because we've been trained from birth to think of some things as melodies doesn't mean that they have any more right to be called a melody than anything else we're less familiar with. If you played tone rows for little kids, they would start humming them. The first things they hum are very structural elements that go into the traditional melodies.

If you take all emotional bias out, everything has equal musical importance. "

This quotation alone changes my view of HH


August 11, 2008 at 09:43 PM · But, Jim, Guitar players DON'T have long nails on their left hands.

And I don't have calluses on mine.

he he he


August 11, 2008 at 09:46 PM · Yes! That's what I was saying about Laurie's interview impression.

"Guitar players DON'T have long nails on their left hands."

I do but they don't need to be there. I'm just unhygenic.

August 11, 2008 at 09:51 PM · I should say, Jim, that the best jazzers I have known have had great and deep knowledge and understanding of the history and theory of the music.

In fact, I would say that it is essential to have such a depth of understanding to play decent jazz.

I would expect no less of classical music.


August 11, 2008 at 09:59 PM · I can't see Miles Davis being able to talk especially long about about either one (in any comprehensible way) :)

August 11, 2008 at 10:00 PM · yeah, but he could play it!

Still, read Miles' book, and various interviews. He did and could talk/write about both.

I suppose it helps that he was actually part of and made nearly 50 years of the music's history


August 11, 2008 at 10:00 PM · There are lots of jazzers who can't read, so there goes the theory theory ....

August 11, 2008 at 10:05 PM · You don't have to be able to read to know theory.

Theory is just a description of the implicit grammar of music


August 11, 2008 at 10:06 PM · Anyway, she knows all the theory she needs to know. She might have a bad theory of fingernails, can't really tell.

August 11, 2008 at 10:06 PM · hehhehhee

You know there are whole shops now dedicated to fingernails...

August 12, 2008 at 02:38 AM · Is Hilary Hahn the best violinist? Ever?

It's for questions like this that we need the Violin Olympics. Until they are held (Laurie for IVOC President) the question has little meaning.

Last night I listened to HH's Brahms/Stravinsky CD. If only I could play one note the way she does...

August 12, 2008 at 03:02 PM · Although, I do not agree she is the best, I would give a whole lot to play Bach the way she does!!! For some reason, I do not like most of her interpretations, especially with modern pieces. However, Bach just fits her perfectly.

August 12, 2008 at 04:58 PM · Well, what a great discussion! :)

Hilary is definitely an artist/musician (Which of these one could put before the other really depends on one's impressions) of World-Class caliber, and I certainly can't do what she does on the violin, so I won't jump aboard any ship that holds her responsible for any kind of non-expression or non-artistry, and I also don't think she is or was vacuous--"Art of The Violin" was practically filmed 10 years ago when Hilary was still a teenager--Does anyone here think they had the most well-thought-out impressions and articulate things to say at that age (Not that I'm accusing young people of being inarticulate--No offense, but I know I probably was)?

Just my opinion, but it counts--Hilary Hahn is a solid, artistic performer of solid, artistic music, and treats any music she performs that way, whether it's Bach or it's Josh Ritter (Not to mention she's also a big fan of music in general).

Even the most heavy-handed performances or interpretations are critized or analyzed, but I guess this is what's called music and its subjectivity, and there's nothing one can do about that except disagree.

August 14, 2008 at 08:18 AM · "Competition is for horses, not artist." - i agree

But among horses, hilary hahn is among the best

among artists i would say not...

August 14, 2008 at 09:35 AM · If you are comparing violinists to horses I assume you are looking to see which ones win the most money. It isn't even close. Vanessa Mae has been consistently on top. Artistry is in the ears of the beholder which would mean that individually our opinions are all correct, but collectively we empty our pocketbooks in support of Vanessa. Hilary is most likely in the top 5 somewhere in terms of sales. One could perhaps develop a computer program to rank violinists by which ones make the least mistakes, taking into account the difficulty of repertoire. That way individual human biases would be eliminated and we would know who has the best technique. Somehow I don't think anyone would care about those results. So why not just share and enjoy what each artist brings out in the music and not worry so much about having our opinions confirmed by others.

August 14, 2008 at 11:21 AM · someone wrote: Watching her perform (or watching the Youtube videos of her perform) you can see that she truly is an artist. She doesn't dance around the stage and bob her head up and down when she reaches the climax of the peace, she just plays very gracefully and very maturely!

I'm astounded to see this mentioned as the mark of a true artist. I personally find the classical tradition of the soloist standing dead still to be unpleasant. I guess this tradition reflects the idea that the soloist is supposed to be "channeling" the Spirit of the composer or something. The musician is supposed to fade into the background.... I much prefer the performance styles I've seen at jazz concerts.

HH is obviously a fabulous musician. To my taste she plays too fast but it seems like that's the modern way to play.

August 14, 2008 at 11:47 AM ·

August 14, 2008 at 02:09 PM · Personally, I don't like to see violinists weaving around and making faces and dancing all over the stage and do kneebends and rolling their eyes as if they're either in pain or having some sort of ecstatic physiological experience. For the same reason that I don't like watching pianists nod as if they're communicating with Rachmaninoff's ghost.

I like the stage presence of the ancients - Heifetz, Milstein, Menuhin - who just stood there and played. The entire focus is on the sound, not on the visual.

If I was interested in the visual, I go to more ballets, or watch Charlie Chaplin, or watch all of these TV evangelists cry and emote, or even watch a rock band.

To me, it's all about the music, the sound, the auditory experience. The rest is show biz. And, unfortunately, "show biz" has become a sort of standard for performance in today's world.

I like show biz, but I don't like mixing it with Brahms.


August 14, 2008 at 02:16 PM ·

August 14, 2008 at 02:37 PM · Who cares if the violinist is dancing around? If you're this easily distracted, I suggest closing your eyes and just enjoying the music. Also, go straight to your CD shelves and throw out all the CD's featuring violinists that dance about the stage.

August 14, 2008 at 03:19 PM · Hi, Jonathan: Hey, relax. Actually, I do close my eyes a lot if a violinist is dancing around the stage, and I do indeed find it distracting.

As far as throwing out all of my CD's that have violinists dancing around the stage, I've never bought a CD that has violinists dancing around the stage. If you are seeing violinsts from a CD, you've got a better imagination than I do.

Anyway, seriously, your point is well taken. I do happen to be one of those people who is easily distracted by anything visual when I'm trying to listen to music, and I don't claim to speak for everyone.

Cheers, Sandy

August 14, 2008 at 03:29 PM · I think stage presence and posture helps in projecting a performer's sound, dancing around does not. The display of a performer can enhance or distort his or her sound, when in reality the actual sound does not change. So say a performer who plays with a beautiful sound and phrasing with an upright posture, he or she will 'sound' more impressive than if the same performer plays with the exact same sound and phrasing but with a posture that makes him look like that he's digging potatoes.

I think many people dance around on stage thinking that it enhances the actual performance, when in fact it does not.

Plus, playing the violin standing still is already hard enough ......

August 14, 2008 at 03:58 PM · when players get this good it is almost up to personal taste.

Still, we have violin competitions, so what would happen with a great panel and these great players in competition? My guess is that Repin would win, but again to me he is without doubt my favorite.

For me sound has a lot to do with it, and I love the sound of Repin, Zimmerman, Tezlaf, Heifetz. Jenson, Ricci.

A good way to figure this out on a personal basis is to ask yourself who would you go see if they were performing on the same night?

Oh, I also love Chang.

August 14, 2008 at 04:02 PM · Anything taken to excess can be bad.

Do I move when I play? Yes. Do I go hopping and skipping around the stage? No. From the audience though-I'd rather see someone who looks alive and like they are enjoying themselves playing--than watching someone who looks like a robot; of course I'm using extreme cases here. We all have out tastes as to what is expressive-and what is over the top, c'est la vie.

August 14, 2008 at 04:54 PM · "Hi, Jonathan: Hey, relax."

I'm one of the most relaxed people you will ever know :-) Tone is awfully hard to detect within banter :-p

Like you, I'm not the biggest fan of violinists dancing about the stage...but it's ok, it's the foot stomps that kill me hehe

August 14, 2008 at 05:10 PM · So maybe you're not a fan of that famous conductor, Wilhelm Feetwangler,

Or those violinists who have a wide vibratoe,

Or Feetz Kreisler,

Or Archangelo Corelli,


Well, enough already.


(Ain't I a heel?)

August 14, 2008 at 05:23 PM · I am a big fan of Hilary...I think it is premature at this stage of her career to affirm that she is the greatest violinist of our time...

I do not think that she would personnaly agree with such a statement...

Great violonist are usually qualified as such after a long career( Oistrach, Milstein or Heifetz for instance)...

I must say that she is focusing a lot on season, she will be performing one work for several months: the

Tschaikovski violin concerto.Last season was the same with the Shoenberg and the Sibelius... and the other season was the same with Sphor and Paganini concerti... In the long run, those repetitive rehearsals and serial performances can be harmful to music making and inspiration...

But so far, she has been doing fine.

Few violinist can master the whole concerti repertoire in one or two seasons...which was the case for David Oistrach for instance or violinist James Ehnes... James can easily perform 15 different concerti during the course of two seasons.

But for sure, Hilary is one of the most gifted violinist ever...


August 14, 2008 at 08:08 PM · She's one of the best!

Three words:


August 15, 2008 at 07:43 PM · The thing I find amazing about her is that while there are so many players who carry their profession around with them in hunched shoulders, twisted necks etc she always has absolutely perfect poise and posture when she plays. Julia Fischer is another example.

I really warm to her as an artist and a person but wonder if she's a bit too perfect, a bit of hit-or-miss abandon perhaps?

August 16, 2008 at 09:08 AM · In my opinion music and arts in general can´t be considered like sports. They are not out there to compete, you cannot stablish who is better or who is worse, they are all great individual players which makes it interesting to listen to all of them.

August 16, 2008 at 09:59 AM · I have to go along with Jazzy (Jasmine Reese) on this one. Hilary is an excellent Bach player IMHO, and I enjoy greatly listening to her playing. I keep her CDs amoung the Great String Players in my CD colection. Still there are times when I think Midori is playing on my CD players and it's Hilary, and vise-versa. As for anything else I tend to gravitate towards Joshua Bell these days, but since I'm working on Fritz Kriesler's (sp? and too lazy to check) music I've been listening to Bell's CD of him playing the same pieces.

August 16, 2008 at 01:19 PM · Yes, she is the best I have heard out of the current soloists. As good as some of the other names of contemporary violinists listed on here, none play with the technical precision as Hilary Hahn. She plays as well live as she does on studio recordings. Most of the current artists rely on splicing and editing to sound in tune, with her you get the real deal.

August 16, 2008 at 04:08 PM · Listen to Kreisler's Kreisler or if you are lucky, find Gingold's Kreisler. Way more "authentic" than Bell...

August 16, 2008 at 04:48 PM · BTW, I just want everyone to know I'm really just speaking as a fan of music moreso than a musician (Especially since I can only play piano and lite guitar at the moment), and please accept my apologies if I'm stepping on anyone's toes--I virtually don't know anything about the violin or its techniques, and I don't want to pretend that I do. I'm sure we all have our favorites, and music, like art, and definitely not like sports, is subjective and we all see and/or hear different things, and there's no way that I can say Hilary is necessarily better or greater than Joshua Bell, Midori, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, or what have you--They all have their styles and they do what's best for them, and that's what's so cool about music--You just do your thing.

I'm just very much a fan of Hilary Hahn, probably now more than ever, because of her achievements in performance and her history of repetoire since her performance and recording debuts, and I'm especially grateful to have seen her live on the classical stage as well as the collaborative shows she's done with Josh Ritter.

I'm also really glad to see she's a big advocate of singer/songwriters and indie-rock as well as classical. :)

August 16, 2008 at 05:08 PM · "comparison between Julia Fischer and Hilary Hahn...any comments about it?"

Do you think Julia looks more athletic? She might be able to throw a harder punch. But she has longer hair, which Hilary could grab and start yanking.

August 16, 2008 at 07:21 PM · Kevin Jang- Thanks for the recomendations! I will certainly look them up.

BTW, Just because someone in the big league string players may not catch my imidiate attention, or I just didn't like what I have heard, should never be an evaluation of that person's abilities. Hilary certainly is up there and will be amoung the most accomplished. My prefrence is Farris, Oistrahk (Both Daid and Igor), Rabin, Stern, Gingold and Bell. Those not on the list here...I still would love to have an ounce of their abilities also... some Day! ;^)

August 18, 2008 at 06:30 PM · Well put, Mr. Bartok. I always hate these discussions about "So-and-so is the GREATEST VIOLINIST OF OUR TIME!!!!!" because it's completely meaningless. Who gets to decide? My own personal taste is such that Ms. Hahn's playing leaves me cold; the greatest violinist in my world is Károly Schranz. Someone else has a completely opposite opinion, and who is RIGHT??!??!

More on this topic later. Right now I'm spectacularly jet-lagged and my English has gotten mildly stupid thanks to speaking bad Czech half the time for three weeks......gah.....

August 18, 2008 at 07:40 PM · Kevin,I totally agree with you about Kreisler's

pieces. Besides FK who was of course the best

interpreter of his own works, Gingold was splendid.

I was lucky to get a copy of his CD and is a pleasure from beginning to end. After him, I like


August 18, 2008 at 09:03 PM · Even so, the "greatest violinist of our time" could very well be somebody I'm missing out on right now, but again, violinists all have a different sound because their musical identities are different, and the sound changes even more through their own individual fiddles. And I agree--Why should somebody have the right to "decide" for all time who the best one is? Why can't we just have our favorites?

August 18, 2008 at 09:14 PM · I have been told never to use irony


August 19, 2008 at 12:09 AM · How ironic!

August 19, 2008 at 05:03 AM · I wrote something daft, but then realised it might be taken the wrong way, so I edited it out.


August 19, 2008 at 11:09 AM · What Mara said. It is reassuring that despite her jet-lagged state, she is clear that her current favorite is Hungarian.

August 19, 2008 at 11:45 AM · Tom.........please.......nationality has exactly nothing to do with it. Károly is a great artist and would be if he were Hungarian or Russian or Spanish or Timbuktu-ish or whatever.

August 19, 2008 at 11:48 AM · Incidentally, these conversations about so-and-so being "THE BEST" or debating whether virtuoso X is "on the same level as" virtuoso Y remind me of nothing so much as my preteen years when my fellow students and I had almost a mania for outdoing each other, using official repertoire-ranking lists and teachers' association difficulty rankings as our holy books. "Oh, phew, I'm still better than Emily, the list says that Bruch is a whole LEVEL higher than Meditation from Thais!" etc......

August 19, 2008 at 02:05 PM · "Anything you can do,I can do better,

I can do anything better than you"

August 21, 2008 at 06:40 AM · If you are talking about the best violinist, as opposed to musician, then I would have to answer no. It's impossible to measure musicianship at the highest level to begin with, because tastes are so different. Only when something is done in glaringly bad taste, could you find a consensus that one performance was worse than another on the artistic level.

Technique, however, I believe can be measured objectively. Everyone is playing to such an incredibly high standard that it takes a real stand out, almost inhuman level of playing to separate yourself from the other geniuses. Heifetz met this standard, as did Horowitz, as do Argerich and Volodos. The only classical violinist I have heard among the new crop, who I consider technically peerless today in this same tradition, is Leonidas Kavakos. Hilary and a whole bunch of other violinists are great, Vengerov, Repin, Josefewicz, Gringolts, Zimmermann etc, but, to my ears, they are just behind the level of perfection, facility and cleanliness Kavakos brings. Kavakos is rubbing shoulders with Heifetz. Amongst the current stars, he is in a different league.

August 21, 2008 at 07:34 AM · I get the same impression from Kavakos, like his technique is a notch above everybody else; something about the ease he conveys. Hilary on the other hand can do everything she needs to do technically, but also give me the warm fuzzies. So, back where we started :)

August 21, 2008 at 09:05 AM · I don't mean to be unkind and I think there is room for many different types of artists at the top. However, when you juxtapose Hahn with Kavakos, I wouldn't say she sounds like a student, but she does sound a level or two below him, similar to Heifetz's contemporaries during his era. Like most classical violinists, I imagine Hahn is a perfectionist, but when I listen to her, I sometimes get the impression she has been practising too much Sevcik. Her playing sounds a bit studied at times. In contrast, Kavakos' perfection sounds natural. It flows effortlessly, with speed and fluidity. It would be one thing if he were just a technician, but his musical palate, sound and musical sense are also top draw. Everything he touches seems to have a sublime quality. I think his pianistic equivalents are Argerich and Volodos, both of whom have unrivalled facility and precision, but also excellent touch and musicality. This is not to criticize Hahn, because she plays at a very high level, but on the question of whether she is the best violinist, from a violinistic (sic) point of view, the answer has to be no. She is one of many.

Hilary Hahn. Paganini Caprice No. 24

Leonidas Kavakos. Paganini Caprice No. 24

August 21, 2008 at 10:16 AM · If greatness was determined by demand, I don't believe anyone has a busier concert schedule then Midori.

August 21, 2008 at 01:52 PM · Can you ever play too much Ševčík? Not if you do it right, I believe, with the brain engaged.

Another question that I have been asking myself: can I play Twinkle to Ms. Hahn's standard of beauty and perfection? I'm afraid not!

August 21, 2008 at 05:04 PM · That begs the question of what HH's "Twinkle" sounds like.

Now THERE would be a real competition: get players to play various nursery rhymes from memory, and judge their playing on those performances.


August 21, 2008 at 11:49 PM · David, I have to take back my partial agreement with you :)

I typed Kavakos, but I was thinking of another player with a rhyming name, who has a great fluid technique but who doesn't make me want to listen, especially.

To get it straightened out, in the two videos you posted, Kavakos is playing hellacious violin, but Hahn is sculpting something timeless. You can't fault Kavakos' playing, but Hahn seems to have zeroed in on something in another dimension. There are lots of people you could do a similar comparison with, people who got stuck on the second tier of soloists, to be honest. You have to be careful about discounting the public, because they know something. Hahn is much more famous.

August 21, 2008 at 07:02 PM · Oh for heaven's sake. HH sounds like an artist. Period.

August 21, 2008 at 07:22 PM · and Picasso paints like an artist. Period.


August 21, 2008 at 07:41 PM · Period? Why try to shut down debate?

August 21, 2008 at 08:02 PM · She's bringing the snacks now, I guess.

August 21, 2008 at 08:08 PM · Better not be celery

August 21, 2008 at 08:53 PM · Jim

Hahn is certainly more famous, but then so is Vanessa Mae. If fame were the standard, I guess 'the greatest violinist of our time' tag would vary depending on the country and demographic you were talking to or the strong marketing campaign behind the artist. Not to discount the abilities of any of these violinists, but fame doth not a great violinist make, in anything other than hype. Judgement must be based on the playing and you think Hahn plays the best, which is fine. As I said before, when it comes to the art, opinions will differ on such a subjective matter. Not everyone liked Heifetz after all, despite his excellent musicianship and superior command of the instrument. No doubt Kavakos will experience the same thing in some quarters.


They used to say you could play too much Sevcik, maybe they still do. I think Efrem Zimbalist was thought to have been a victim of too much Sevcik.

August 21, 2008 at 09:05 PM · ITA, Laurie! :)

August 21, 2008 at 09:10 PM · Some mentioned 'The Art of Violin' doc. For those interested, here's an interview with Hahn describing how her contribution came about.

Hilary Hahn on 'The Art of Violin'.

August 21, 2008 at 09:25 PM · David -

Hilary and Vanessa are in different markets. It doesn't matter how Hilary compares to Vanessa or to the Rolling Stones. But, I think at least in the U.S. Hilary is a lot more well-known than Vanessa, anyway.

August 21, 2008 at 09:30 PM · The analogy was really about fame, not markets. Anyway, who's to say a pop, jazz, gypsy or any other type of violinist cannot be a contender for 'the greatest violinist of our time'?

Interestingly, Hilary is less well known in England than Vengerov, who I imagine also has a greater following in Russia, Germany and much of the rest of Europe. Fame is funny that way.

August 21, 2008 at 09:59 PM · David -

Fame (reception) within a market. Abraham Lincoln is famous, but he doesn't have anything to do with classical violin - how his fame compares to Hilary's is irrelevant in our comparison.

August 21, 2008 at 10:01 PM · Well, any number of classical violinists can claim to be more famous in a particular locality, country or continent. None of them can claim to be more universally famous than anyone else, not that this should necessarily be a badge of honour anyway.

August 21, 2008 at 10:02 PM · Well, markets include geography I guess. It's hard to take over the world :)

August 21, 2008 at 11:06 PM · Sometimes I get the impression Americans think the United States is the world and everything in it. The only thing is, it's not.

August 21, 2008 at 11:53 PM · David-

Britain thought it could take over the world.

That worked out great!!

Also, do you think that Kavakos' technique has gone way downhill when compared to his youth? His technique is unbelieveable in those videos on youtube of paganini 5, god save the queen, and the sauret cadenza, but all of the recent videos seem to be full of forcefullness and scratchiness. Do you see what i mean?

I guess I should also mention that I dont quite understand or appreciate kavakos' musicianship yet...I just don't see any magic in his playing, other than the magic created by the unbeatable technique in the videos i mentioned


I disagree with anyone that says that solo violin performance is ONLY about sound. With TRULY great players, there is a certain grace about the way they draw their bow, the way they move their instrument when a section is very very dramatic. Heifetz did ALL of that, beautifully. This is why i would much rather watch a video of heifetz, szeryng, gitlis, kaler, etc.

I agree that theatrics like joshua bell and langlang are rediculous, but there is no great violinist in history who looked stone cold when they play. The visual expressions can be subtle but still very effective and expressive adding enjoyment for the audience.

A lof of people that say that a violinist should stand and look stone cold are just repeating an exaggeration made by their teacher who never got the fame they wanted that people like joshua bell enjoys :)


In your effort to shut up individuals that are capable of critical thought (or just disagree with you, god forbid), you said "hilary hahn sounds like an artist" as if this is some sort of closing statement.

What does this mean? What is "artist"? Everyone's an artist, right? This doesn't say anything. Does it annoy you that people are trying to define what "artist" means, and what makes someone a great artist vs. not so great?

August 22, 2008 at 12:42 AM · Dude, mama's a peacemaker. Don't jump on her.

David, sometimes we do think of the people of other countries as out pets. It's our British heritage. Try to ignore it. :)

August 21, 2008 at 11:56 PM · there is no war that I am aware of.

i just wish her comment was as constructive as she sometimes preaches ours should be...

August 21, 2008 at 11:59 PM · You can tell she just doesn't want to see any feelings get hurt.

August 22, 2008 at 12:13 AM · no, no i can't

August 22, 2008 at 01:33 AM · lol


prescript to David.

I saw Stern and Perlman and Eugene Fodor in recital a few months apart. A Handel sonata Perlman played I liked the best of those three; lots of charm. Stern was the most interesting of the three overall maybe. Fodor made me quit violin. He was surreal :)

August 22, 2008 at 01:35 AM · D Kurganov

I guess it depends what you define as great. Britain did some pretty horrible things taking over the world and it eventually came back to bite.

You have to be careful with YouTube videos because there is a lot of poorly recorded and closely miked sound on there. I last saw Kavakos do the Brahms a couple of years ago and he sounded at the height of his powers, totally flawless. In 'The Art of Violin' Perlman talked about the zzsshhhuuttt sound, when Heifetz was heard at close quarters or when closely miked, which would become luminous when heard from the correct distance. Kavakos has a similar robust bowing style, but a great sound when heard properly. I was actually quite close to him at that concert and he sounded fine. Incidentally, I think Perlman is a better violinist than everyone currently out there, bar Kavakos, speaking only of technique of course. In terms of completeness, they are close. I think Kavakos has the slightly greater technique, but Perlman also has that almost unnatural or natural mercurial quality that no amount of practice with a metronome will give you. I guess it just comes down to good genes. Plus Perlman has that amazing lush sound. Obviously, at his age he does not have the hunger or need to practice as much as he once might have, if at all, but at his height he was playing at a level unmatched by anyone new I have heard other than Kavakos.

Post script to prescript:


Interesting. I actually find Perlman more technically impressive than Fodor. Fodor was obviously very strong technically, but I found his playing a bit practised. For me, it doesn't have the natural and almost irrepressible impetuosity Perlman's playing has, plus it was not so organically coupled with the music.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

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

ArmSymphony AI Violin Competition
ArmSymphony AI Violin Competition

Find a Summer Music Program
Find a Summer Music Program Business Directory Business Directory

AVIVA Young Artist Program

Antonio Strad Violin

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases


Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Metzler Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin



Johnson String Instrument and Carriage House Violins

Potter Violins

String Masters

Bein & Company

Annapolis Bows & 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