How do you recognize a specific violinist?

October 31, 2011 at 01:24 PM · Hello,

I've heard/read of people who can spot a certain violinist just by listening to a piece being played. Like hearing something and saying: it's Heifetz!

I would like to know: what is it that makes a violinist recognizable? How do you know it's Heifetz playing? Or Milstein? Or Hahn? Or Mintz?

Would you please help me? Please, be specific, like giving me a link to a piece and saying something on the lines of "it's clearly a Milstein to me, because I can recognize... at 1:23 min..." if you know what I mean.

I was thinking: supposing I get to know how Mintz does his vibrato. Then I could recognize it elsewhere (on another piece, I mean). But he doesn't have only ONE vibrato. He varies it depending on what he's playing. And so on.

Thank you for taking the time to help me out of my ignorance (if at all possible...).

Replies

October 31, 2011 at 01:41 PM · Hi, Caroline: My answer to this is that there are certainly unique ways that each of the greatest violinists performs specific things - such as shifting up, shifting down, attacking a note, the quality of the vibrato, and when the vibrato is used, how a melody is played, and so forth.

But also, for me, there's a global quality. I liken in to the human voice. We recognize people by their unique voice (speaking or singing). Same thing here. It's sort of like getting familiar with someone's voice. And once we recognize that violin voice, nine out of ten times we'll identify it correctly.

One reason it takes a while to hear the violin voice is that, for example, you may hear Heifetz performing the entire Beethoven Concerto (40 minutes), and then a week later hear it performed by Perlman. There's a huge time gap between one and the other. It's not back-to-back and next to each other in the same way that you can compare the paintings of Picasso and Titian next to each other at the same time.

Try recording one brief passage several times, each by a different violinist. Then listen to them back-to-back. I think that might make it easier.

Cheers,

Sandy

October 31, 2011 at 01:49 PM · It's much harder to distinguish between modern violinists, say those of the last 20 years, because they all sound similar. There is no one unique voice. With the older players - the ones of the Heifetz, Milstein, Menuhin, Francesscatti, Oistrakh era - then, they were all individuals.

Since about 1980 most (not all) violinists are trained to sound like carbon copies, with the very occasional exception.

October 31, 2011 at 01:53 PM · Peter: I couldn't agree more.

Sandy

October 31, 2011 at 02:32 PM · This is much easier with jazz pianists. :)

October 31, 2011 at 02:41 PM · This is a fun question!!

I can't spot players all the time. But there are a few I can. It's *usually* more the general character of the sound that's the giveaway to me, rather than specific elements of their work (i.e., vibrato, use of rubato, whatever). I suppose it's a bit like tasting wines. Words don't really help all that much, but they're all we have!

Gil Shaham has an open, warm, inviting, awed sound. There is an overwhelming joy to it. Have you seen the look on his face while he plays? That's what he *sounds* like, to me.

Hilary Hahn is steely and sharp. It doesn't take her any time to get any note she plays ringing; that big sound is always right there, right away. She very rarely leans into her shifts.

On the other hand, Midori totally leans into her shifts. (Look up her performance of the Last Rose of Summer on Youtube from Carnegie Hall. I've used the word "yearning" to describe them before.) She has a thinner, slightly smaller sound, but very concentrated and very golden.

Ehnes is the aristocrat. Everything sounds *beautiful* and easy and effortless (even some passages you might not want to sound beautiful or easy or effortless). For the most part he sounds very earnest but every once in a while a sauciness comes through. Listen to the samples available at Chandos's website of the first few moments of both movements of the Bartok first violin concerto. The first slow movement feels totally honest and earnest; the second has an element of wry attack and sarcasm to it.

Salerno-Sonnenberg is the one who sounds as if she's playing for her life. She's the one shrieking out to you from the speakers to pay attention to this music, dammit! Vibrato, extreme dynamic contrasts, slides, rubato...everything.

Chang is always assured and dramatic, and if there ever are any technical difficulties, it doesn't sound as if it's technical limitations as much as the passion overcoming her on-stage in the moment. She usually sounds crunchy, as if she's using a lot of pressure and pushing her instrument to the limit. (Watch the 4/4 video of Sibelius violin concerto on Youtube.)

Oistrakh sounds wise. He has heart and soul. You can hear life experience in the way he approaches the instrument. He has a golden luscious sound and an amazingly effective vibrato.

Heifetz is... Well, I won't describe Heifetz for fear of making this into another Heifetz debate thread, because people will latch onto whatever I say and protest. His tempos are faster than what other people take, for better and for worse. His sound and vibrato is very unique; he's one of the easiest of all violinists to identify. Just listen to a lot of his recordings and you'll get the idea, trust me. There are differences between early Heifetz and later Heifetz in regards to recording technology, so keep that in mind as you listen.

Kreisler is the charming one. He somehow takes the most saccharine melodies and makes them honest; you never feel like you're being emotionally manipulated. He's the one that sounds like he's playing to an old friend with a knowing smile on his face. He has quick fingers and an incredibly lovely vibrato. He's delicious sweet candy that won't ever give you cavities.

For the old guys, watch The Art of Violin; hearing so many violinists in close succession will help you identify them. I wish someone would do a similar project with today's best violinists.

These are just my opinions. *shrug* I don't mean to dis anybody or insinuate one artist isn't as good as another; these are just the ways that I personally identify players...

October 31, 2011 at 02:51 PM · "Since about 1980 most (not all) violinists are trained to sound like carbon copies, with the very occasional exception."

If modern violinists do sound like carbon copies (and I'm still not convinced they do; look at all the differences I, a young relatively inexperienced listener, was able to find above between different modern players), wouldn't technology, recordings, merging schools of pedgagogy, and increasing internationalism ALSO be likely causes, as opposed to merely teachers who are deliberately training their students to all sound like one another?

BTW, don't want to open that can of worms in this thread, but I just had to put that out there. I will say no more on the subject in this thread...

October 31, 2011 at 02:57 PM · I agree Emily, at least to a point - which is the expectations. If students are given the same role models to emulate then its likely they will generate the same sounds.

However, technology has also permitted us to sample the diversity of players much more so there is a very broad spectrum of styles to listen to. I happen to love the early to mid 20th century playing styles and try to emulate them - but my career does not depend on how I play. If I was aiming to get an orchestra chair I would no doubt go abou this very differently.

October 31, 2011 at 03:50 PM · Caroline-Funny that I would be listening to the great Mischa Elman when I stumbled across your post now he's one that is easily identified as many of his generation are. I agree with those that say it is a bit harder to identify some of the younger generation but there are some that have very destinct sounds a few I can think of offhand are

Anne Akiko Myers

Sarah Chang

Gil Shaham

Midori

Hilary Hahn

Anne Sophie Mutter

But I guess even some of these folks aren't considered the younger generation anymore.

-M

October 31, 2011 at 03:57 PM · There are only 1 or 2 classical violinist born after 1960 that I can recognise in general and that is Vengerov and in particular Mutter.

October 31, 2011 at 07:23 PM · I too think that Heifetz was not always the fastest (I've heard Menuhin when young play faster) - but Heifetz had wonderful articulation, sound, and phrasing, which means he always sounded pretty unique.

I don't know why (or if I do I'm probably guessing) those players were so different and individual. It was a combination of things which made their interpretations, sound, and phrasing, so individual.

November 2, 2011 at 02:21 AM · Gee, I didn't know there was a whole science to this... In my opinion, as you keep listening to various recordings of artists. Gradually, you know what they sound like, and once you hear a recording of them you never heard, you just know. In my opinion, I don't find it difficult to identify Perlman.

November 2, 2011 at 04:32 PM · To me, describing how I recognize a violinist by listening is like describing how I recognize a person by looking their face. Easy to do, hard to explain.

November 5, 2011 at 12:05 PM · my friends nate Robinson is 100000% right. Heifetz is heifetz,Kreisler is Kreisler. Every single violinist from the past show thei emotion in theri on style way and attack in higher notes or that shifting that my dad(LOL) has he was always smiliying he almost never practice . My teacher (RIP) tolde me and the book about Kreisls says" He study by memorizing the whole score mentally during the 4,5 hrs long ship,train even car. Today thanks to the "NEW ERA" Ivan Galamian and Dorothy Delay change everything. Just listen to all chinese and middle eastern violinist theyall sound the same. I mean monkey see monkey do. I advise to all beginers not to copy others violinisteven the old one . Its good to heareveryone but what I mean be you own let you emejination fly acroos the time when the composer wrote the piece. Exmple, when Leoplod auber was preperaing the most talented student Mr Heifetz Thaikovsky already wrote the breaking bow arm and finger artritis arm he took it to Aube to let him see what he thinks about it, obiously Auber said to Thaikovsky " This is not poosible to plat change these" Thaikovsky didnt do any changes he came back and said to him iI have a well talented student who can play these nerve breaking Epilepsy artritis concerto is Mr Heifetz" The violinist who everybody has to said something about him was the onewho did the worldwide performance of the concerto. What have Galamian , Dorothy delay have done to improve fiolinist to perform with heart and enmoytion, NOTHING just write books with diferent hand stroke scales system. I was raised in the old school, sorry but they( The Old Violinist where the one that teach us how to play that little thing called "VIOLIN". I change the way bow is grip just going up auber style and chaging to a more "MODERN STYLE" but still I convince that old schoo and SOME off mODERN school can be made what teachers called The French-belgian school. I study some off the concerto and my god fellows is freaking hard to play that damed concerto buy play by heifetz God's Fiddler is a trip without drugs. the best thing is relax dont get uppset and listen play slowly and you will see.Im agrree with Mr Nate Robinsong. He is a another heifetz being born lets time go and all off the students will see it. Ok my God bless you all.

November 5, 2011 at 02:07 PM · Pedro, I am sure your intentions are good, and you might be correct in your feelings, but what you wrote hides those things.

First, yes. Nate is (almost) always correct :)

Secondly, The difference between say Kyung-Wha Chung and Sarah Chang is bigger than the difference between some Auer students. There is no "Monkey" here...

Thirdly, your story about the Tchaikovsky concerto is not close to anything resembling the truth :)

Auer didn't reject the concerto for it's difficulties, no matter what he said.

Auers version of the concerto is Harder, and none of the hard spots is simplified. Auer just didin't like it at first hearing. The phrase "It is unplayable" just means "I don't like it", or in this case perhaps "I can't remember all those repetitions, what is the matter with you Pyotr? Fix is or go to bed without cookies, and by the way... You know Nadezhda, the women that doesn't want to meet you? I've met her several times, and she finds you repetitius too!"

And the guy who premiered the concerto did it before Heifetz was born. in fact, the concerto was even popular (and liked by Auer again) before Heifetz was born.

And so on :P

November 5, 2011 at 02:36 PM · "To me, describing how I recognize a violinist by listening is like describing how I recognize a person by looking their face. Easy to do, hard to explain."

Well put!

Emily, great post, I agree with much of what you stated, but never had tried to put it into words. Gil Shaham and JOY, Yes!

November 5, 2011 at 03:02 PM · It's like recognizing a person's voice. Some people have very recognizable voices (James Earl Jones), and some people's voices may not be so incredibly unique but you are familiar with them so you recognize them (family members, close friends, even actors whose movies or TV shows you watch regularly).

In my opinion people think modern violinists are less recognizable / less individual simply because they haven't heard them as much. Many of us of "a certain age" grew up listening to Heifetz play the Brahms, for instance, over & over again for years, and got to know every nuance of that famous recording as "the way the piece goes." Then they hear someone else -- anyone else -- play it, and say "bland, uninteresting, no individual expression" and turn it off. Even if your mother doesn't have a particularly "memorable" voice, you're not likely to forget the sound of it, yes? -- although people who have only met her once or twice may not recognize her voice on the phone a year later.

Another thing (again, my opinion) is that I think players today have learned from players of the past that having one ultra-distinct, indelible personality is not always a plus. Heifetz playing Brahms or Bruch is one thing; Heifetz playing Mozart or Bach is another. A musical "personality" that is so inflexible and unyielding is not something everybody wants, even if the lack of it might keep them out of the history books.

November 6, 2011 at 01:08 PM · I agree with Peter - most of today's violinists sound pretty much the same. Is one of the causes recordings? The great old players mentioned grew up having to fill a hall with sound and if you took a chance and missed a note, well it's gone! I know from playing in concert-giving orchestras and recording orchestras, there's a different mind-set. Playing for a microphone tends to be "keep it safe".

And maybe because of this sound similarity, I get so annoyed that a lot of newer recordings tend to be loud and fast, or pulled around unmercifully to be "different". Think of a lot of recordings of the 4 seasons, then compare with Alan Loveday with the ASM. And the Bach concertos - for me, Oistrakh is the one I could listen to all day. "Authentic" it certainly isn't - just beautiful and so naturally musical.

November 6, 2011 at 03:05 PM · Bruce: Give a listen to the Heifetz performance (the early one, in, I think, the 1930's) of the Mozart 4th Concerto. It is not only great Heifetz, it is also great, great Mozart, even if the interpretation is different from many others and maybe one not considered "authentic" (or whatever). How do we know that had Mozart the opportunity to listen to Heifetz, he wouldn't have said, "I love it; keep it. That's the way it should be played."

Sandy

November 6, 2011 at 03:43 PM · Sander -- I didn't say "good" and "bad," I just said "one thing" and "another thing." Using the same approach for Bach and for Bruch can work (not that Heifetz necessarily did so, or always did so) -- it just works differently.

November 7, 2011 at 01:14 PM · Hi, Bruce: Got it. Thanks.

Sandy

PS. There's a great anecdote about Brahms, who was in the audience for a performance of his violin concerto by Eugene Ysaye. The two met briefly after the concert, and (so the story goes) Brahms said, "So, it can be played that way, too."

November 7, 2011 at 03:37 PM · "Another thing (again, my opinion) is that I think players today have learned from players of the past that having one ultra-distinct, indelible personality is not always a plus. Heifetz playing Brahms or Bruch is one thing; Heifetz playing Mozart or Bach is another. A musical "personality" that is so inflexible and unyielding is not something everybody wants, even if the lack of it might keep them out of the history books."

Bruce - I don't entirely agree with you, but I think I once did. I too did not like Heifetz's Mozart or Bach, but now, when I'm in my dotage, I do. (Don't remind me that this could be the reason!!) In fact I personally think that his two Bach concertos have never been equalled, and that no one has come with a 100 miles.

From Malcolm Turner

"I agree with Peter - most of today's violinists sound pretty much the same. Is one of the causes recordings? The great old players mentioned grew up having to fill a hall with sound and if you took a chance and missed a note, well it's gone! I know from playing in concert-giving orchestras and recording orchestras, there's a different mind-set. Playing for a microphone tends to be "keep it safe".

And maybe because of this sound similarity, I get so annoyed that a lot of newer recordings tend to be loud and fast, or pulled around unmercifully to be "different". Think of a lot of recordings of the 4 seasons, then compare with Alan Loveday with the ASM. And the Bach concertos - for me, Oistrakh is the one I could listen to all day. "Authentic" it certainly isn't - just beautiful and so naturally musical."

As Nigel Kennedy said, people who claim to be authentic are rather arrogant. (He was reffering to the HIPP lot).

Loveday is a good example of a unique fiddle player. He told me that he learnt all the sonatas and partitas when he was a kid and he hasn't looked at the score since. And this was after he played a lot of the movements from memory at a private performance for kids. Aged I think, closer to 80 than 70!

And yes, I think recordings have played a big part in causing uniformity, because everyone analyses all the available recordings and since they don't sound that different this becomes a concensus.

Yes, Oistrakh is unique and along with Heifetz one of the greatest. He was music personified.

November 10, 2011 at 01:00 PM · Nathan Milstein, when asked about Jascha Heifetz, said this:

"Nobody can play the violin like that. I can't, nobody can. Forget his recordings. What Heifetz does in live performance is just incredible."

The truly great ones recognize the true greatness in the other truly great ones.

Cheers,

Sandy

November 10, 2011 at 03:50 PM · Maybe Milstein only said that because to say anything else about Heifetz is to invite an avalanche of criticism and the annihilation of one's reputation. "You've got to see him live to understand" ?? Maybe true but conveniently beyond verification.

November 10, 2011 at 04:08 PM · Yehudi Menuhin (in his autobiography) was critical of Heifetz, and it didn't seem to hurt his (Menuhin's) reputation any. And don't forget the very famous critical review of a Heifetz concert by Randall Thomson. His career (he was a terrific composer, too - give a listen to his Cello Concerto) wasn't hurt by it, either. Heifetz had lots of detractors - personally and professionally - during his lifetime. None of them (as far as I know) ever lost their reputations over it. There have been several scathing criticisms of Heifetz in this very website by many (I presume) talented and successful musicians. They seem to be untouched by their critiques.

November 10, 2011 at 05:21 PM · Gee, Paul, where could you have gotten an idea like that in your head?

November 10, 2011 at 07:06 PM · Oh, and in addition, it has always seemed to me that Nathan Milstein was not the sort of person who was hesitant to be candid in saying what he thought about anything or anybody.

November 12, 2011 at 12:20 AM · I remember reading Milstein`s account of the first time he heard Heifetz play. It was in the summer of 1911 in Odessa. Although Milstein didn`t recall much about the performance, he did remember the events surounding the concert and remarked that the whole experience reinforced his desire to seriously pursue violin studies. Since he heard Heifetz many times in live performance over the following decades,I give his opinions the utmost respect.

November 12, 2011 at 07:08 AM · It was for me rather sad that when Heifetz died Menuhin said a few words on the BBC radio in the UK - something along the lines of, "well, of course he was really a great technical performer but no so well thought of as a musician." (Not accurate for exact words but accurate for his opinion).

A bit like he may have been always a little jealous of Heifetz. It would have been better if he had just said nothing. But he was considered here in the UK in those days as the ultimate violin Guru, especially by ignorant media types.

November 12, 2011 at 10:40 AM ·

May 11, 2012 at 09:19 PM · It's got to be the phrasing. How else would you distinguish between and identify anonymous pianists, as my father (a pianist himself) could do, bearing in mind that most of them tend to perform and record on similar or identical pianos?

Having said that, aside from phrasing, I believe that many great string players have tonal, and even intonational, features in their playing that can identify them.

May 13, 2012 at 11:20 PM · Technically, the two main giveaways are the vibrato and the style of shifting. Musically, it is the emotional content in the phrasing. Music tells a story. How does a given violinist tell the story? With great humanity and nobility (Menuhin)? Or blazing virtuosity (Heifetz)? Charles Johnston

May 14, 2012 at 12:44 AM · I'm not real good at telling violinist apart yet, but the more I listen to them the better I get.

It's kind of like getting to know a person. The better you get to know them, the better you'll be able to recognize something they might say. For example, Perlman might say, "I know I played every note". Whereas Bell might say, "I played all the notes". Both would be saying the same thing just wording it differently. Likewise, they would play music differently too. Perlman might tend to hold some notes longer, and Bell might tend to use more staccato. I don't listen to either of them very much so I can't give you any real examples (sorry).

Heifetz and bell would be really easy to tell apart. because there personality's are so different. Joshua Bell is a hot young fellow, so he tends to play most things fast and flashy. Whereas Heifetz was older, more sedate and he tends to be a little more expressive and takes a little more time.

Try comparing Heifetz and Bells ave Maria, and see how they play things differently.

The main thing is to just listen to them and you'll start to picking up on there own personal styles.

The thing I've been noticing listening to violinists lately, is the different sound the violin makes. It's not always the violinist.

I hope that helped.

May 14, 2012 at 01:17 AM · For me... I look at what what sets a certain player apart from others in terms of technique, musicality, and tone. I will give you some obvious examples...

Heifetz always plays fast. His tone is very lean. His musicality is quite " cold".

Menuhin tends to be a sloppy player, not always in tune.

Perlman tends to slur lots. His tone is warm but comes with an edge. His intonation is also very very precise.

Hahn... Oh boy! Big round and warm tone. Very emotion playing but not overly done.

Stern, whose tone is probably the darkest out there along with Szerying. Stern's tone has a little bit of edge. I sometimes wonder how such a dark sound can travel so well.

Gibson Kremer, his tone is "lighter" co

Pared to others.

Gil Shaham, another big beautiful warm sound kinda like Hahn. Except his playing is even smoother and his one isn't as dark as Hahn's.

To be honest with you, I listen to so much classical music, I know the recordings well. So that's how I cheat to know who's who.

May 14, 2012 at 03:57 PM · Rule Number 57:

- In every discussion about great violin playing or great violinists, it doesn't matter what the specific topic is - eventually everything discussed will be about (or in relation to) Jascha Heifetz.

Corollary:

- Even when the topic is not about Heifetz, his spirit is always hovering in the background somewhere.

May 14, 2012 at 11:13 PM · John - give me a break. I wish there was a rule that you can only critisize something if you can actually do it better. Just about every single performance by anyone will have errors - if you can only find one that is astonishing.

What you seem to be forgetting that now they remaster the recording so that it all sounds perfect. If I had my way that would be illegal - first, its not honest but more important it strips the music of its natural variation - the 'in the moment' aspect, errors, variations - and most important how the performer deals with it.

May 15, 2012 at 12:56 AM · Elise - remastering can only improve the acoustical/audio quality. There is no way to influence the musical/performance quality after the recording and the editing is done.

May 15, 2012 at 10:24 PM · Also, it was easier to tell players apart before because there were less players than today...

Not only because of their more individualized way of playing.

The number of soloists have grown exponentially :)

July 17, 2012 at 11:45 PM · With modern performer I can identify Zukerman, Sarah Chang, and Hilary Hahn's sound. But I really can't tell the differences for the rest. However, I can identify the sound from those previous generation violinists such as Heifetz, Milstein, Oistrakh, Kogan, etc...

It's unfortunate I never had a chance to listen to Heifetz in live.

July 23, 2012 at 07:16 PM · Elisa Stanley!

My uncle is the direct descendant of the A.Stradivari granpa's, I had a dinner with HIM and I had the chance to play all the violins from His personal collections, no American stronzate.Stradivari is here, you say?

December 20, 2012 at 03:12 AM · Caroline, if recognizing specific artists is new to you, then starting with some more extreme examples might make it easier to get the hang of it.

Find examples of several pieces played by both Hilary Hahn and Joshua Bell. Hahn and Bell are at quite different poles in terms of technique and emotional interpretation and it shouldn't take long to hear the differences. If you can't hear it right away, then keep listening and ask around for more examples of pairs of violinists who have significantly different playing styles before you tackle the ones that are more subtly different.

Even the best musicians practice ear training throughout their lives.

December 20, 2012 at 03:31 AM · "It's got to be the phrasing. How else would you distinguish between and identify anonymous pianists, as my father (a pianist himself) could do, bearing in mind that most of them tend to perform and record on similar or identical pianos?"

This is a good point. Violinists generally carry their instruments with them.

Pianists generally play what is available to them.

In old recordings, many of the major pianists were sitting down at the same piano, in the same recording studio or concert hall.

Pitch and slight bending of the note via the tip of a finger are not available on the piano—you have only the interaction of the volume/phrasing to identify the player.

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