Stern Shocker

October 30, 2008 at 05:33 AM · The other day I was driving my kids to school and I heard a truly awful rendition of Kreisler’s arrangement of the Leclair “Gavotte”. Fascinated I waited for the announcement of the soloist. It was Isaac Stern with the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra (Sony SK62692).

I was so shocked I almost had to pull over! I love Stern’s playing – his Mozart 3rd Violin Concerto is some of the best Mozart on the violin anyone can hear. My wife tells me that she once heard Oistrakh playing an awful Beethoven Concerto. Anyone else know of similarly forgettable performances by the great masters of the violin?

PS I tried to submit this question before but it didn’t go through. Am I doing something wrong?

Replies (53)

October 30, 2008 at 05:34 AM · The reason I didn't approve this one in the first place was that I'm just a little tired of bashing great violinists. For example, yes, I saw Menuhin on a bad day, but I've also seen his recordings, and his achievements in many fields, and I just feel rather humbled. I have a some idea of the level of difficulty here, having played the violin for some 32 years, gone to a music school and studied at that level, performed, suffered nerves, yada yada yada. The levels achieved by the great, respected violinists of our day go far beyond my own, and they come with an enormous level of persistence, hard work, self-sacrifice and (lastly) raw talent.

I know that some people will be sensitive and speak from having a sense of perspective. Others are just flinging derision at people of accomplishment to make themselves feel better.

So there you have it. My thoughts on the matter. I love that Stern was a champion of new music in his own time. He did much for our art.

Great violinists are human, like the rest of us. They have their bad days. My heroes don't have to be perfect to win my respect.

October 30, 2008 at 05:47 AM · Greetings,

I can`t really see the p@oint of dredging up this kind of stuff either but it does raise some interesting questions.

There was I time, I think, when people were quite tolerant of a violnist busting 6 gut estrings in a recital going off to change them in the middle of whatever. A time perhaps when you could make a mistake in orchestra without losing your job or whatever.

With the availibilty of relentlssly perfetc cobbled together CDs it now seems that audiences are more unforgiving and the pressur eon musicians is enormous. This is especially with the cut back in rehearsal times. It has destroyed many good players. In Britain, one of our bets ever solo violinists and orchestral playes was reduced to sititng at the back of the seconds and couldn`t actually get on stage without drinking a fifth of scotch.

Another factor so often forgotten is that management is to stingy and conducters are too damn arorgant to allow rehearsal time for the soloist equaivalent to the symphony even though it may be as intricate and demanding in many ways. How often does one end up blaming the soloist when the conducter cannot even extend the coutrsey of getitng together before the rehearsl and actually fidning out what the poor soloist wants. (not true of all- but certainly most- Mehta and Baremboim are fine exceptions)



October 30, 2008 at 06:53 AM · Ah! so that's the real reason you had to leave the Motherland Buri .... hope you are doing better with the drink problem now! :) !!


October 30, 2008 at 12:15 PM · Yes, well I obviously was doing something wrong. Bashing great violinists! That certainly wasn't my intention. I had no idea that the administrators of were so touchy.

All I can say is that I was genuinely surprised that it was a recording of Stern's. Like I said I know him as a great musician. Maybe someone who has listened to the Sony recording can't see anything wrong with it. It is only my opinion after all.

October 30, 2008 at 01:13 PM · If you're looking for perfection, the violin is not your instrument. Perfection is a wonderful thing to strive for, but you can't value the total worth of any violinist (or anyone else) by that absolute standard.

I saw (in person) Oistrakh having an off-day, and Menuhin and Stern, too. But I wouldn't trade the worst off-day of any of them for anything. It makes them human, and as far as I'm concerned it adds to significance of their remarkable achievements.

In the 1960's, I was at a rehearsal with Stern and the Columbus Symphony (in Columbus, Ohio). Stern rehearsed the Hindemith Concerto (which, I think, he was about to premier in New York) and the Mozart 3rd Concerto. The Hindemith was astonishing in its technical perfection, musical depth, and sheer excitement - one of Stern's best (and I heard him many times over the years). But it was probably brand new to him, and he was obviously excited about it. But in the same rehearsal, he hacked his way through the Mozart 3rd without any delicacy whatsoever. Of course, he probably played the Mozart a zillion times, and this was after all a rehearsal. Still, I wouldn't trade a minute of the experience.


October 30, 2008 at 02:05 PM · Martin, I don’t believe that Ms. Niles was being unfairly "touchy". I believe she was merely attempting to stop what looked like many of the other "drag great soloists’ names through the mud" blogs. As for my personal opinion concerning the "ranking" of violinists – a wise person once told me (after I had made the mistake of bashing another violinist) that the classical world, will not survive, if we all keep tearing at each other. I realize that "bashing" violinists was not the point of your post, but perhaps not publicly speaking ill of these great musicians would serve for the better. I hope I haven't offended anyone, as I just wish to keep a positive atmosphere on this site.

October 30, 2008 at 01:58 PM · For my two cents - I don't mind at all when the "greats" make a mistake now and then because I know that there's hope for me.

I have Perlman's recording of "Live in Russia" and I love the Bazzini performance. In it he fumbles a couple of the notes and then you can hear the audience laugh. I like it because I can only imagine that Perlman made some funny face when he messed up and then just plowed ahead and finished. Such a great sense of humor and the audience obviously loved every minute of it.

In my mind playing the violin is a life-long learning experience and we're all just learning at different levels. Anyway, if Perlman can mess up and not worry about then I can learn to do the same thing...

Okay enough rambling from me - I'm off to get coffee.

October 30, 2008 at 02:04 PM · I think there is an interest in (occasionally) seeing that those we hold to be superhuman are mere mortals after all. I was once shocked, many years ago, when my violin teacher, who played second chair in the Seattle Symphony, complained bitterly about Stern's playing in (then) recent years. But I went to that concert and learned some valuable critical listening skills from the criticism.

October 30, 2008 at 02:14 PM · I have never seen Aaron Rosand have an off day.

October 30, 2008 at 02:17 PM · Debra,

I have the Perlman/Argerich recording of the Franck and the Kreutzer sonatas (live in Saratoga).

I was delighted to hear some flaws (both players), even in easy passages. Man, this is great. So I won't have to hide in a hole in case this will happen to me (and I'm sure it will)


And it's great music even with these small flaws.

October 30, 2008 at 02:27 PM · "I have never seen Aaron Rosand have an off day."

in other words, on his off day you have never seen him,,,:)

October 30, 2008 at 02:47 PM · As an added thought, sometimes the "off days" result in the greatest performances. The courage and "heart" shine through, and make it an experience of watching a "hero" overcoming the odds.

PS. I've never made a mistake. I thought I did once, but I was wrong.

:) Sandy

October 30, 2008 at 02:49 PM · with stern, there is another dimension where some have felt quite strongly about him stepping on other people's toes very hard causing bruises and fractures. since we are all human and eager to believe and connect dots, it is easy to mix personal dislikes, if you will, with tech mistakes.

violin playing is relatively easy if we change how basketball is played, that every time you shoot you must sink the basket or how baseball is played, that every time you swing you must hit a home run or how golf is played, that every time you aim, it is a hole in one...

October 30, 2008 at 03:07 PM · Sander: PS. I've never made a mistake. I thought I did once, but I was wrong.


October 30, 2008 at 04:32 PM · One shouldn't judge. Judging is wrong!

Sander, you inspired me.

October 30, 2008 at 04:51 PM · judging is not wrong. judgement is assessed by psychologists like sander on a daily basis. in fact, "judging is wrong" is a judgement.

simply noting those masters' mistakes and learning from them is, in my judgement, a great way to learn, if not a cheap way to learn at their expense:)

to make an inflammatory situation out of those mistakes is what laurie is concerned about.

October 30, 2008 at 05:03 PM · I`m not a violinist. In fact, I don't play any instrument. And I fully understand that anybody, even the greatest, can made a mistake on a public

performance, because players aren't machines nor robots. But I can't understand nor forgive a studio recording published with mistakes.On a studio you have all the time you need, and can repeat or start all over again as you wish. So. if you miss, you can fix it. If I were a player, I would never allow a recording of mine with errors be published.

October 30, 2008 at 05:39 PM · Carlos:

In this day and age, that may very well be true. But it's interesting to look at historic recordings, in many of which such editing was not an option (either for technical reasons or maybe other economic reasons- who knows).

The early Heifetz recordings, for example, were undoubtedly done in one take, and they are astonishing (1917). So are the Eugene Ysaye recordings, done in 1912, with obvious inconsistencies.

One of my all-time favorites (Francescatti's Beethoven Concerto, 1950, with Ormandy and the Philadelphia) was as I understand it a studio recording, but one that was done in one take. There are a couple of whistled notes in it and maybe one or two other minor, minor blemishes that might very well be edited out today (and could have probably been edited then). But the totality of the performance is so genuine and so on point that I can see why they might have wanted to leave it as is.

But as to why a musician would want to allow a clearly blemished performance to be published....I'm not sure I understand that either. It's an interesting point though.

Cheers, Sandy

October 30, 2008 at 06:13 PM · Al, I was afraid of this. My post was meant to invite a smile. As you said, "It's wrong to judge" is itself a judgment. That makes the whole statement ironic.

October 30, 2008 at 06:04 PM · I agree with Laurie.But what about the ones who get quite injuriously bashed here on this website because they express a different opinion about musical interpretation or because they dislike the playing of violinist XYZ for various reasons? I would add that some of these great violinists are well renown themselves for having "bashed" others in order to promote their own career...

October 30, 2008 at 07:14 PM · A perfect example was famous teacher Carl Flesch.

He despised almost every violinist he new, and had

derogatory words for all of them. He didn't like

anybody and almost nobody liked him.

October 30, 2008 at 08:04 PM · "A perfect example was famous teacher Carl Flesch.

He despised almost every violinist he new, and had

derogatory words for all of them. He didn't like

anybody and almost nobody liked him."

I don't think this is quite fair. If you read his autobiography, he had a lot to say about other violinists--some of it laudatory and some of it critical, but by no means exclusively derogatory. He had some harsh words about his own playing, too. He was a very critical listener and that's perhaps why he was so esteemed as a teacher. And I think he was remembered with affection by many.

Incidentally, the autobiography is fascinating, not just because he was a consummate racconteur, but because he described in critical detail the playing of so many violinists from the period just before the era of recorded sound, as well as many whose careers continued into that era.

October 30, 2008 at 08:18 PM · Yep!

On the radio one day, some violinist was playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto really horribly (out of tune, squeaky, missed harmonics) and I was absolutely shocked to hear that it was Heifetz with the CSO in 1950, with Fritz Reiner (my least favorite conductor)!

Well, there you have it.

October 30, 2008 at 08:18 PM · Well, maybe. But he left to his most gifted amd brillant students a curse. Hassid,Neveu.Wolfsthal

and Ferras.

October 30, 2008 at 09:04 PM · Hi, I agree with everyone and I know that even if they are extraordinairy, we all have some performances of our great idols that we really hate. Sometimes it is only a question of different opinions on how to interprete a piece. Moreover, sometimes you hear your idols play a piece so well and you see him or her in live and you say, it's nice but not comparable with the wonderful sound he or she did on his or her cd. But I learned something as Mattiew said. I said my opinion only one time on a face book (I stated an article that said that the pianist x played like if he had an hammer and play over the violinist) and added that I agree totally etc... I didn't even think of how mean that was! I never did it again on facebooks and the only ones that really knows my opinions on specific players is my teacher and family! although when I don't name names, I say what I want!


October 30, 2008 at 09:16 PM · I've heard a few below-par performances both recorded and live from people that you'd not expect to hear them from.

I think there is a difference between someone simply having a "Bad Day" and someone who obviously has just flown in on the red-eye and sounds like they left their technique in the departure lounge.

Accidents can and do happen in live performance and in a way it is reassuring for normal violinist mortals such as myself when a big name misses a shift or fumbles a few notes.

On the other hand, I've been in a situation where it was obvious the soloist had simply not bothered to spend time on the piece and was basically just there to pick up the cheque. In that situation no-one was fooled...

When you look at the schedules of big name soloists from before the days of fast, efficient plane travel and compare them with certain players today - well - all I can say is I don't know how some of them find the time to keep their music-making consistently up to a perfect standard!

I do agree that we expect too much perfection because of carefully edited and controlled CD performances.

October 31, 2008 at 02:47 AM · Humanity is the essence of art, after all.

October 31, 2008 at 02:26 PM · In sports:

Great batting average in baseball - over 30%

Great quarterback numbers - 23 completions out of 30 attempts

Great 1st serve percentage for tennis players - over 70 percent

These people who are considered the top of the game are still making plenty of errors.

Violinists missing 10 notes out of thousands? Who cares?

As long as they are making true music, I don't care about missed notes.

That Stern recording was made well into his late stage of his career if I am not mistaken.

October 31, 2008 at 03:23 PM · Stern, Menuhin,Kreisler and few others had one thing in common:yes , they had few bad days and played wrong notes here and there. But they were highly educated persons and could easily express themselves in public. Kreisler spoke and wrote in seven languages, knew latin and greek, about history ect. ect. That is the reason why they were great musician. Same for Rubinstein the pianist... Or Eugene Ysaïe.

Stern was a very important figure in the musical world and a great influence for many. His playing,was very individual even if not perfect. I prefer these violinists much more than the perfect machine and performer who has nothing interesting to say , to teach or to transmit to future generations, apart from his formidable and memorable ego...

October 31, 2008 at 04:03 PM · A few small imperfections are part and parcel of what makes the spontaneity of a live performance so much more satisfying than a flawless recording. (Of course, big imperfections or lots of small ones don't enhance any listening experience.)

October 31, 2008 at 07:59 PM · "Stern, Menuhin,Kreisler and few others had one thing in common:yes , they had few bad days and played wrong notes here and there. But they were highly educated persons and could easily express themselves in public. Kreisler spoke and wrote in seven languages, knew latin and greek, about history ect. ect. That is the reason why they were great musician. Same for Rubinstein the pianist... Or Eugene Ysaïe."

I don't understand this point. Using this line of thinking, I am not considered a great musician, because I have yet to learn how to speak and write in multiple languages as well as receive a full post-secondary education?

I would say that Pearlman, heifetz, menuhin, Ricci, chang, etc were great musicians during their prodigal stage regardless of how eloquently they could "express themselves in public."

Yes we are all human...even Heifetz, Oistrakh, Milstein, stern, etc. What distinguished these superstar violinists from others, imo, would have been their ability to minimize those mistakes and perform at a higher level of consistency than the vast majority. Also, I consider them to be the best of the best, because of how well they could express their emotions and musical ideas using the violin rather than with their abilities in verbal communication with the public...Kreisler may have been an great orator, but that wasn't the reason why he was such a great musician and vice versa.

October 31, 2008 at 10:38 PM · Mistakes can be endearing, like blemishes. What I enjoy most about hearing someone make a mistake is watching them correct it. It's only human to make mistakes, but it takes true skill to correct them on stage.

October 31, 2008 at 11:57 PM · Marina - that's a really great point. During the summer Nikolaj Znaider did the Beethoven at the BBC Proms and it was televised so it was obvious that the lights were really hot and you could see the torrents of sweat running down his face, hands (and violin.) In the second movement during one of the tricky arpeggi, his wet fingers slipped - tiny flub but of course at that point - everyone can hear it. Live tv, packed hall! Nikolaj being the consummate professional he went on to play a fantastic remainder of the concert - even apologising (I lip-read) to the conductor at the end of the concerto, whereas I'm sure many lesser mortals would have fallen apart after such an incident.

Afterwards I admired him even more as a fine violinist and musician than I'd done beforehand! ;-) Slippy fingers are NO fun!

November 1, 2008 at 12:15 PM · at student level, one of things to learn to do is to ignore the mistakes and play on, without making a fuss on the stage or making faces and rolling eyes, which are more distracting than the mistakes themselves.

November 1, 2008 at 12:50 PM · There is a story in the bio of Yehudi Menuhin. When he was 12, and world famous, he was playing the Brahms Concerto in Carnegie Hall. In the middle of the first movement, he simply stopped playing. He must have forgot. The conductor turned to the audience and said something like, "What do you expect; he's only a kid." They then started again and it went fine. After the concerto, however, young Menuhin stormed off the stage and was (as I understand it) furious at himself that he "forgot."

November 1, 2008 at 02:50 PM · I saw Joshua Bell play the Brahms and one of his pegs slipped at the worst possible spot -- I think it was the downward arpeggio that starts on high A just before the long coda of the 3rd movement. You know, when the orchestra has cut out just milliseconds before and the violinist is completely exposed. That was the quickest tune I've ever seen. I think he might even have laughed (you have to admit it is kind of funny!), and the audience gave him a huge ovation.

November 1, 2008 at 02:40 PM · Most of what we hear from well known violinists are from cds made in the studio. Technically they are perfect. I think it is especially intimidating for students to think they are a failure if they don't play perfectly in a technical sense. It is a valuable lesson for kids to hear live performances and see that their heroes are human. That way they can be more forgiving of themselves. The thing that counts the most is the sound, creativity, and the musicality an artist imparts to the audience when performing. In a way it is an inspiring affirmation of our humanity when so-called superstars screw up. After all our humanity is what makes music beautiful and spiritual. The tension that is palpable in a live performance is in part what makes it so thrilling and so sublime when everything works. And yes Aaron Rosand Heifetz are among the human.

November 1, 2008 at 03:16 PM · I no longer perform on the violin, and the world is a much better place for it. :-)

But as a performing jazz organist who doesn't practice as much as he should, I have found that a laugh is by far the best "correction" I could make, if the mistake seems obvious enough that most will notice it. Not only does it keep the audience on my side, it relaxes me and lets me move through the mistake. I had to cure myself of wincing or making other nasty faces afterwards. We who play jazz are more fortunate, however, than classical performers, in that as we improvise, it's a lot harder sometimes to perceive a "mistake."

November 1, 2008 at 03:17 PM · I'v often heard great great players whisle on the e string many times and arrived slightly to high or low in shifts and it is extraordinairy that they only do such little thing when we see how much notes they play (many many pages that are learned by heart)so who cares. I notice that often the best players (musically) make more little mistakes than those who are technically perfect but, their playing is so unique and true. It once again proofs that you can not juge someone by only one performance.

November 1, 2008 at 04:19 PM · The best way to not worry about mistakes or false notes, is to play some 20/21th.century works. Nobody will notice.

November 1, 2008 at 06:22 PM · They won't notice in 20th-Century works like Appalachian Spring or the Barber Concerto???

November 1, 2008 at 10:19 PM · I may have posted this before but it's unforgettable. Scott St. John who's an awesome violinist has had this blooper on his website for a number of years. I love how he doesn't take himself too seriously.

Scott by the way will be performing at the Brooklyn Chamber Music Society on November 21st.

November 2, 2008 at 08:18 PM · I like to hear a mistake from a violinist where otherwise everything goes well. Heifetz' last entry in the Conus is about half a tone too low. But it doesn't sound like a mistake. And why not? That's a nice subject to study. After the cadenza in the Spohr however, a few things don't work for Heifetz anymore. Tired? Who knows. On several occasions Heifetz was urged and convinced by John Pfeiffer, his producer, not to make corrections in his recordings. "A wrong note by you, Mr. Heifetz, will make many violinists very happy!"

November 3, 2008 at 04:29 AM ·

Isaac Stern was a great violinist? I didn't know that.

November 3, 2008 at 02:36 PM ·

Years ago I heard a story which was alleged to be true. Nathan Milstein came to a rehearsal of some orchestra, and the orchestra tuned up. Then MIlstein tuned up, but he tuned his violin slightly sharp from the rest of the orchestra. He then signalled that he was ready. The conductor politely informed him that he was tuned at a higher pitch than the orchestra. Supposedly, Milstein said, "Don't worry; they'll come up."

Moral? Sometimes you should plan your mistakes ahead of time.

:) Sandy

November 3, 2008 at 02:37 PM ·

Patrick: General knowledge, culture in general, experience of life, is a very important matter for a musician. That is what I mean. If you dont understand that, well, I do not know what to say...

November 3, 2008 at 10:36 PM ·


I really like the story about Heifetz` Christma s gatehrings in Ayk`s book.  Musicinas would be invited to play chamber music but under no circumstance sbe allowed to prepare it.  When it wa sclear that somebody had practiced there was trouble....  This quest for artistic spontaneity over accuracy is also present in some of his masterclass sessions.




November 4, 2008 at 04:00 AM ·

Marc, you didn’t phrase your point in that manner, so I did not understand your initial point.  Next time, please phrase your point clearly before claiming, "If you dont understand that, well, I do not know what to say..."  It makes you sound condescending.

My point was that there were/are musicians who didn’t/haven't necessarily experienced the life of Kreisler and Stern who were/are still great musicians.


November 4, 2008 at 07:38 AM ·

I have been very interested to hear all the stories and opinions that this question has provoked but has anyone come across the Stern recording I referred to at the beginning?  I would be very interested in some opinions on that.  Not sure when it was made, but I assume it was at the end of his career.  Even the listing on the ABC (Australia) website was wrong as what I think I heard was the Rameau "Gavotte" in D. 

November 4, 2008 at 02:17 PM ·

Patrick: Thanks, sometimes I am in a rush with work and my English is not very good.  I think you have to look at someones career as a whole before claiming that xyz is a great pianist , violinist or a great musician. Heifetz, kreisler, Stern, and many others had long careers. Musicality ,you can have instinctively, like the young Menuhin. But before it gets to a full potential, it takes years of reflexion. The flair must be guided by the intellect in order to evolve.  And experience outside of music counts, including knowledge in general. You do not need a special diploma for this. Only curiosity. Now , how many of these great talents out there really get to the level of Oistrach? Tell me... Some of them are really famous, as much as him... But being famous today is also a question of marketing, not only of honesty, great intellect and total devotion to music.

Stern was a very curious man. He did a lot for music, musician and composer's. When in top shape, he could rival with anyone. I believe that his very last recording, a tribute to Kreisler says a lot about the person, his preferences. Stern, Oistrach,Milstein, Francescatti, Gingold,  and Heifetz did have their own idol: it was Fritz Kreisler. Not only the violinist or the composer, but overall, the humanitarian, the one who could speak to humanity. Kreisler was much more than just a violinist.  I think in a way this applies to Stern and few others. Very few.

November 4, 2008 at 04:06 PM ·

Marc, thanks for the clarification.  I definitely agree with you, and to be honest, I don't know that much about Fritz Kreisler's life, but I'm researching it, and he seems like a great human being not to mention an amazing musician.

And yes, I've always thought of Stern as a "maverick" for our classical music community in general with his amazing proactive deeds.  He seemed like a humble and gentle human being with a huge passion for music (from what I've heard...).  I've discussed Stern with Sarah Chang, and she's told me so much about him...the kind of person he was (they were really close) and the amazing ability he had where he could just spark a fire under any violinist he worked with.  I just hope that one day, I can make the kind of impact that Stern and Kreisler have made not only in the violin community, but on the world.

November 4, 2008 at 04:50 PM ·

Best biography of Kreisler: Fritz Kreisler, Love's Sorrow, Love's Joy by Amy Biancolli available at


A must for everyone interested in the life and era of Kreisler. Contains many anecdotes and tributes by other great violinists who knew him, including some comments by Stern.



November 4, 2008 at 07:09 PM ·

I'm just listening to the gorgeous recording of Mozart KV 563 by Stern / Zukerman / Rose and couldn't care less about some awful played Rameau- / Leclair- / or whatever-Kreisler... BTW I owned the recording w/ the F.Liszt CO and am very thankful for it: For me bad recordings are the best birthday gifts for people I don't like...   

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