Violinists with a unique, one-of-a-kind sound or approach

March 17, 2009 at 10:55 PM ·

Today it seems that we have so many really great violinists on the concert stage, but they're not always easy to tell apart. I absolutely love to listen to many of them, but they do have a generally similar style, approach to the music, vibrato, and technique.

I just listened to a new acquisition - a 4-CD set of live, previously un-published performances by Zino Francescatti of numerous concertos, sonatas, and encore pieces. He's always been one of my favorites. And these are such fresh, spontaneous (and not always flawless) live performances. They remind me why I like Francescatti so much and why I miss that unique violin voice of his. And then I realized that there is probably nobody who ever sounded like him. And there are probably others I could say the same about. I'm sure most of us can identify Menuhin and Heifetz and Oistrakh and Ricci and Huberman and Elman after a couple of measures.

Which violinist (or violinists) do you admire who you consider to have a unique, individual, one-of-a-kind sound, technique, or interpretation?  And why? Who are the ones (like Francescatti for me) who you keep coming back to in order to hear a voice that's as familiar to you as your own and that you can't seem to get enough of? 

Replies (32)

March 17, 2009 at 11:07 PM ·

I will say one of my teachers, Shmuel Ashkenasi.  His tone is pure singing...nothign extra.  It brings tears to your eyes.   His slides, his playing, his intonation (he has a great "melodic" sense of intonation, making notes higher or lower based on tonal structure), and his sound, most of all make him amazing.

March 17, 2009 at 11:09 PM ·

Fritz Kreisler, George Enescu, Jacques Thibaud, Jascha Heifetz, Manuel Quiroga, maude powell etc.

March 17, 2009 at 11:26 PM ·


all the old greats.  Probably my three favorites:  Milstein,  Szigeti and Menuhin.

I do think there are modern player swith a unique sound and individulaity.   Joshua Bell is a good example.  What he does on the violin is so subtle it is almost posisble to miss it if ne is using hald an ear.  Zimmerman is an imaginative and creative player too.

Sometimes I think todays players try to do too much with the music to prove something or pay lip service to fashions or whatever.    For example I am a big fan of ASM and I do like her Mendelssohn but listen to that for an extende dperiod and then go and listen to Milstein....

Another great violnist who seems to mess thibngs up is Zeheitmehr.   wonderful player and musician. Yet,  when I lsiten to his Mozart recoridng I am pepretually irritated by his wa wa sound effetcs as though this is the way Mozart is supposed ot be played correctly.   Make sme wonde rif people can actually play two straight notes in succession prior to the music of June 17 1841.  



March 17, 2009 at 11:40 PM ·

To me, Mischa Elman has the most easily distinguishable sound, the most unique.

March 18, 2009 at 12:11 AM ·

Oistrakh!!!   I've seen as good in one performance by some others but overall, I never saw someone almost always perfect with the good interpretation and sound in almost everything he did. Nowadays, how many violinists teach (real one to one on regular basis not masterclasses) conduct, play viola and is such active as a soloist and tough until 66 with this rythmn? Not many...  But your question was about the unique sound and he surely did!


March 18, 2009 at 12:40 AM ·


now you`ve got me in this particlar groove....

Wghen you listen to today`s Bach/baroque concertos they are fast and eenergetic and very enjoyable as a kind of bouncy therapy with a nice tune thrown in in the middle.  In spite of Milstein`s repeated adnomitions not to play Bach too fast;)

But when you listen to Huberman playing the Bach E major,  my past by sell by date can of prunes,  he breaks every so called rule in the book.  Spiccatos,  high posiitons, portamentos on every other note,  amazing differnet vibratos.  But you know what,  it is all for purpose of creating endless incredibly imagnative phrases thta all hang together beautifully.   It is a whole new world and if you really wnat to hear how the most dull looking page of black notes can be transformed from a fast rum ti tum to truly great music thta is one place to go.

Somewhat more modern in ethos but equally educationla is the Szigeti. version of the Bach a major cocnerto (the harpsichord one) .



March 18, 2009 at 01:17 PM ·

Among the greats who have passed, most of my would-be choices have already been mentioned - unless, has anyone mentioned Enescu? Among the older generation still living, I'd cite Rosand and Nadien.

I do generally agree that the overall standard today has never been higher, but that along with this very high plateau there are fewer easily discernable peaks. A couple of exceptions would be Mutter and Hahn.

I hadn't heard of Ehnes before seeing his name mentioned on this site quite a while back. Then one day several years ago I heard him on the radio doing the Rondo Capricioso. With the first two notes I was hooked. Except for recently purchasing that wonderful DVD set, Homage (-if I rightly remember the title; I've lent it to someone-) I again, hadn't heard anything from him. Then a couple of months ago on the radio I came in past the beginning of the Bruch #2. I thought that I couldn't imagine whose wonderful performance it was, yet I kept thinking of Ehnes. Turns out I was right! Clearly, his is not the highly individualized sound of  Kreisler, Elman, or Heifetz. But there must be a subtle indidviuality there that caused me to recognize his playing with little and distant prior exposure. Or maybe I was just very psychic that day!

March 18, 2009 at 02:09 PM ·

Since a few weeks I seem to hear a new voice in the violinist's world after I devoured the 24 Caprices by Paganini played for Hyperion (London) by Tanja Becker-Bender, her very personal handwriting on a beautiful delGesu.  Corroborated by some Live performances I attended in Germany.

Also to me, Julia Fischer is quite easy to recognize. A year ago, I happened to tune in to NDR Kultur-Radio (Hamburg) and overheard the very last bars of the Brahms Concerto, Live. "No one else than David Oistrakh or Julia Fischer" was my guess. The announcer said Julia F. and the NDR Symphony Orch. under Michael Tilson Tomas.

To me, Heifetz is the easiest to recognize. So is Ida Haendel. And Mutter, for several +/- reasons...


March 18, 2009 at 07:25 PM ·

Gidon Kremer has a way of making his violin speak that is characteristic for him, and appealing, too.

And Hilary Hahn: she manages to convey a sense of simplicity to everything she plays, no matter how difficult.

And I could probably learn to recognize the subtlety of Isabelle Faust..

I don't know if I'm making sense; these things may be  subjective. It's a joy to realize how many great violinists there are nowadays.

March 18, 2009 at 09:58 PM ·


if you can`t recognize Kramer`s sund you have problems.

Not going to say what I think of that tense ,  whispy scrape.....;)

Fantastic musician!



March 18, 2009 at 10:47 PM ·

Anne Sophie Mutter!  I can always recognize her original vibrato and thick, honey sound.



March 18, 2009 at 11:03 PM ·

No discussion of this topic would be complete without mentioning Ivry Gitlis.

March 19, 2009 at 12:48 AM ·

David Oistrack.

March 19, 2009 at 01:22 AM ·

I really would like to be on that Oistrack  Moscow Conservatory concert with Sviatoslav Richter at the piano, with the Franck and Brahms sonatas. I've listened to this CD many many many times.... His Prokofiev and Shostakovich are unique also.

March 19, 2009 at 01:38 AM ·

I seem to be able to recognize Kogan's sound as quite distinctive - then again, maybe I'm just really familiar with the many recordings I own.

March 19, 2009 at 09:52 PM ·

I thing about unique tone and  phenomenal bow  and finger technic of Vasco Abadjiev combined with  very imprecive music imagines in Bach and briliance in Paganin.

March 20, 2009 at 02:39 AM ·

I can nearly always recognize Midori's playing - I find her tone and vibrato so different from other violinists both past and present. There is both an intensity and a sweetness there that is difficult to describe.

March 20, 2009 at 11:03 AM ·

Oh yeah, I had Midori on the tip of my tongue as well, for the reasons Ruth mentioned -

and Isabelle Faust on her Dornröschen Strad. Forgot the name of her bow.


March 20, 2009 at 03:24 PM ·

Oh yes, Ivry Gitlis with that frenzy vibrato.  I love him!  Also, GezaHosszuLegocky.



March 20, 2009 at 04:26 PM ·

Itzhak Perlman has a very distinct sound and style whether he is playing his 1740 Guarnerius del Gesu (ex-Sauret) or his 1714 Stradivarius (Soil- previously owned by the late Sir Yehudi Menuhin). He has a beautiful tone, almost-flawless intonation, and a tasteful use of expressive slides (portamento) which characterize the Perlman sound. And yet, the individual sound characteristics of his violins are retained. Just listen to his recording of the Sonatas and Partitas of J. S. Bach from the late 1980's in which he used both the Del Gesu and the Soil Strad. 

March 20, 2009 at 09:50 PM ·

Funnily, I would say Mutter, Oistrakh and Perlman have the most "ordinary" sounds - though I can't define what "ordinary" means in this context.

March 20, 2009 at 10:01 PM ·

Leila Josefowicz had an interesting take on the Mendelssohn.

March 21, 2009 at 05:03 AM ·

Heard a very unusual Zigeunerweisen on the radio one day and spent the whole piece going "OMG, who IS this?"  It was so imaginative and way beyond what most people are willing to do... turned out it was Lara St. John, from her "Gypsy" CD.  It won't leave you satisfied if you think the violin has to sound like Mintz or Zukerman in order to be good; but for a unique style of playing she's a great example.

Anne Akiko Meyers is the only violinist I have ever identified blind from the radio -- and I've done it 3 times, just from the sheer beauty of the sound. 

I'm also a big fan of Tetzlaff's playing, although I'm not sure I could identify him.

March 21, 2009 at 07:51 PM ·

I agree with one person who suggested that being identifiable by sound is not necessarily good.  I come from a guitar background and I can easily pick out some of my favorite old school players.  I can also, every time it seems, pick out one in particular whose playing I don't particularly like.

Anyway, at this point I think I can often pick out Heifetz (probably the easiest, to my ear), Milstein, Oistrakh, Kogan.  I haven't listened enough to the previous generation and I am just starting to become familiar with the sounds of the later generations, which I find harder to distinguish from one another. 

March 23, 2009 at 03:08 AM ·

There is also Artur Grumiaux, with an always elegant refined clean tone and exquisite taste. His recordings of the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole, various encore pieces including a very charming interpretation of Elgar's La Capricieuse, and many others are well worth a listen.

March 23, 2009 at 04:02 AM ·


one of my teachers at RCM once expressed thenotion that Grumiaux had one of the bets recording sounds of all time.    Live I know from experience he could be very disapponting,  especially in his later years.   But he is all to easy to pass over and then one stumbles back to his recording of whatever and its a revelation to once again listen to that elegant,  refined,  unpretentiousness beauty and msucianship.  The Mozart cocnertos are the pinnacle for me.



March 23, 2009 at 04:59 PM ·

Guiliano Carmignola has a very distinctive sound.  I also think Perlman has a very distinctive sound and there are other times when I like it.

March 23, 2009 at 07:05 PM ·

To my ears, Gidon Kremer has one of the most distinctive sounds of all the "modern" violinists.  I don't necessarily care for how he interprets some of the pieces in his repertoire, but his performances always show his very personal aesthetic.

March 23, 2009 at 07:07 PM ·

Philippe Hirshhorn

April 20, 2009 at 03:31 PM ·

I fully agree with Brian Hong's message regarding Shmuel Ashenasi.  I have his recording of Paganini 1&2 on DG and love it so much.  But once I lent it to a friend and it never returned.  I would like to get hold of the same again.  Can anyone tell me where and how?  Can anyone tell me if the master has other recordings please?

April 20, 2009 at 05:15 PM ·

I have mentioned Ben Mink before.  I love his work with "Loosing It" by RUSH!  so Etherial and beautiful! And his work on Geddy Lee's CD, My Favorite Headache" where he plays Violin, Viola & Cello.


April 20, 2009 at 06:39 PM ·

Yes, Raphael, re Enescu ... heard his wonderful playing of Corelli on Utube a while back now. Not hard to understand why Menuhin was in awe of his artistry and musicianship ... his phrasing is so elegant and so (for want of a better term) well thought out. Given the tendency of so many violinists to play in a sort of eternal mezzo forte, Enescu's dynamics are a revelation.

Buri, yes, also re Grumiaux ... loved his version of the Beethoven Concerto. Years ago, I heard his recording of the Bach Unaccompanied Sonatas ... his gorgeous overtones still bounce around in my head twenty years later whenever I think of his unhurried and lucid Bach.


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