Who's been the greatest violinist of the 20th century?

January 4, 2014 at 01:54 PM · Who's been the greatest violinist of the 20th century?

Replies (36)

January 4, 2014 at 02:43 PM · The only answer I have is 'Yes'.

It might be fun to play the game - but the exercise ultimately is pointless because there is no scalar measure of artistic output. Who is a greater painter Monet or Picasso? You may as well ask which is nicer, a bird song or a bach partita. The answer always is sometimes one and sometimes the other for value is in the sensation of the beholder and not only are each of us independent beholders, we are not the same from one moment to the next.

But perhaps that's the party-pooper reply ...

January 4, 2014 at 03:07 PM · No...the party pooper reply would be:

They are all very good and equally deserving of the title. And don't forget...it's the effort that counts!

January 4, 2014 at 03:21 PM ·

January 4, 2014 at 05:04 PM · I'm in the party pooper party. Elise's mathematical argument should suffice. To make things more difficult for the rest of you, here are a couple more names:

Anne-Sophie Mutter

David Oistrakh

Aaron Rosand

Nathan Milstein

Jascha Heifetz

Arthur Grumiaux

Have fun!


January 4, 2014 at 06:25 PM · 1917-196... - Heifetz

1967-1996 - Hirshhorn

January 4, 2014 at 07:03 PM · Forgot Hirschhorn -- shame on me!

Edit: and Szigeti!

Edit: oh, and Kogan!

January 4, 2014 at 09:34 PM · And why on earth does everyone forget Szigeti?

January 5, 2014 at 12:15 AM · Huberman, of whom my mother said "He was as ugly as sin, but could he PLAY!" and Hans Keller discussed him on the radio, too.

Szeryng was outstanding in violin and piano music, because he and Rubinstein worked so well together.

Heifetz was not at his best in that medium, but he was fine in the larger chamber music. The Heifetz-Pyatigorskiy, etc recordings of the Brahms G-major sextet and the Franck piano quintet, etc. are outstanding.

Ginette Neveu and Kyung-wha Chung, particularly for the Sibelius?

January 5, 2014 at 12:38 AM · Gretings,

I love huberman's stuff.

When he is playing well.....



January 5, 2014 at 01:56 AM · I don't think it's possible to designate one as the greatest but I think it is possible to assign merit in various categories. My choices for the 20th century would be Kreisler, Szigeti and Heifetz--all for different reasons.

January 5, 2014 at 08:06 AM · why does everyone forget Hassid?

January 5, 2014 at 08:10 AM · aha, it was a trick question.

The op used 'been' which means it only refers to one particular violinist at a given moment for a randomly selected individuals. Now I can claim the title for the split second before anyone reads this Andy Warhol eat your heart out....


January 5, 2014 at 09:57 AM · what about kogan?

January 5, 2014 at 10:42 AM · he's fuming.

January 5, 2014 at 03:42 PM · I am with Elise. For those who answer this question seriously, you will probably get at least one vote for every famous violinist of the period. Even if you limit it to one piece, say the Beethoven concerto, you will have the same problem. Keep practicing and don't worry about this question.

January 6, 2014 at 02:04 AM · When I was a boy I loved Isaac Stern because no matter what piece you wanted to hear, you could always find a recording by him! So you might say he was always there for me.

These days I find so much enjoyment listening to as many versions as I can find of the piece I am working on, and identifying the differences. I listen to them several times while following the music, and I invariably choose a favorite -- rarely Stern however, although his playing is always good.

January 6, 2014 at 02:07 PM · Not this thread again. I can only say who MY favourite violinists are. So rephrase the question and we'll keep talking. Otherwise...

January 6, 2014 at 08:28 PM · Q: What's the best/greatest/optimum xyz?

A: It depends. What are the evaluation criteria?


Q: What's your favorite xyz, and why?

A: The ABC xyz works best for me. It makes my eyes look bluer.

January 6, 2014 at 08:45 PM · Well, I agree. We can go on arguing about who was (is) the greatest violinist of all time, or who is one's favorite, or whatever.

But if the question is "Who is the violinist who has had the greatest impact on violin playing in the past 100 years (or more)?" - the answer (after Paganini) just has to be Jascha Heifetz.

You may think his playing is "cold" (which is nonsense - it may not be sentimental, but it sure is passionate), or you may think Oistrakh has a bigger vibrato, or you may think that Henryk Szeryng was the best all-round violinist, or whatever.

But how can anyone who reads the history of violin playing and violinists not recognize that the Carnegie Hall debut of Jascha Heifetz in 1917 (followed by the worldwide distribution of his recordings) virtually changed the standards of performance worldwide (and not only for violinists, but for performers on any instrument).

Before the Heifetz model, audiences and critics routinely tolerated sloppy technique, inconsistent intonation, goopy slides that were personal mannerisms rather than an integral part of musical phrasing, wayward interpretations that took personal liberties with the composer's score, often absent vibrato, and other idiosyncratic mannerisms.

Jascha Heifetz literally changed the standards of violin playing overnight, changes that persist to this day. And this has been recognized by a host of famous violinists who are sometimes considered "the greatest violinist of all time."

Henryk Szeryng referred to Heifetz as, "The Emperor." Oistrakh said, "There are us violinists; then there is Heifetz." Stern, Kogan, and a host of others recognized that Heifetz set the standard and was in a class by himself.

Sure, we all have our favorites. I've got a long list of "favorite" performances (live and recorded) by numerous violinists other than Heifetz. But Heifetz came along with the "right stuff" at the right time (especially in those early years of the modern recording industry). And my preference is that no one ever recorded a better performance of the Elgar Concerto, the Sibelius Concerto, and numerous sonatas and encore pieces (in addition to the Brahms Sextet mentioned above).

So, Happy New Year.



January 6, 2014 at 09:19 PM · Greetings,

gotta agree with you there Sander. I guess you have read Axelrod`s book on Heifetz? Its not that exciting but he tries to offer `objective` proof that Heifetz was the greatest by showing that he was the highest paid violinist of all time . Its not the world`s greatest argument for artistic merit but it does give pause for thought.



January 6, 2014 at 09:39 PM · Thank you, Buri:

Yes, I've read the Axelrod book, the Wechsler-Vered book, the Roth book, and that new translation of the book about the Heifetz early years in Russia and Lithuania, as well as other articles and reviews over the years. And it sure helps to read the history of anything to gain a perspective.

Anyway, in turn, thank you for your many comments on this website.

And have a great new year.


January 6, 2014 at 10:13 PM · Heifetz.

January 7, 2014 at 02:30 PM · I suspect almost all of us would agree that Heifetz was the most influential of the 20th century. Even though he is not my favorite, he certainly was more influential than any of the others. That much seems clear.

January 7, 2014 at 03:27 PM · No argument on Heifetz.

Yet -- there were others who had more influence, in a different way. Stern was instrumental in saving Carnegie Hall. Huberman influenced (saved?) the lives of many European musicians, by getting them out of the holocaust.

Yet in the area of violin performance, I don't think anybody upped Jascha.

January 7, 2014 at 05:26 PM · Agree with Sander Marcus and the books he recommends. Charles

January 7, 2014 at 05:55 PM · Only one person might outshine Heifetz in influence with respect to the violin in the C20 - and that is his primary teacher, Auer. This pedagogues reach extends to almost every famous violinist since and to everyone of us. Not only that but he served as a critical vector, following his star students to the New World. But this is not how the question here was posed, which focused on perfirmance, not influence (that came up later).

January 8, 2014 at 03:22 PM · Elise:

That's true. On the other had, the evidence is that Heifetz was almost fully formed by the time he started studying with Auer.

Stay warm.


January 8, 2014 at 11:26 PM · Sander - interesting. Where is that info on H?

January 9, 2014 at 12:41 AM · Wikipedia: "It is rumored that Jascha Heifetz once said that Grigoras Dinicu was the greatest violinist he had ever heard". Comments?

January 9, 2014 at 03:22 AM · Let me provide a response to the comment about Jascha Heifetz which Sander alluded to above.

In Weschler-Vered's book about Heifetz, the author quotes Carl Flesch's statement in his memoirs that "Heifetz admits in confidence that he came to Auer fully trained and after a very brief term of study devoted to learning a number of standard works, embarked on a great career". Mr. Weschler-Vered then spends several pages discussing why Flesch's statement is not accurate -- including suggesting that Flesch was jealous of Auer's success in producing so many great violinists. Weschler-Vered then states as follows: "It would be futile to speculate about what Heifetz said or did not say regarding the period of his training under Auer 'in private' or 'confidentially': Flesch's recollections form the only testimony on that. However, a few years after his graduation from Leopold Auer's master class, Jascha Heifetz would refer to his former teacher's qualities. In no way is the Professor's stature reduced or his role diminished. Heifetz credited Auer with being an incomparable teacher...". Similarly, in Axelrod's book on Heifetz, Axelrod writes (based he says on a series of interviews with Heifetz) that Heifetz said that "Prof. Auer was a wonderful and incomparable teacher. I do not believe that there is any teacher in the world who could possibly approach him."

I also would add that Heifetz was still quite young (likely age 8 or 9) when he started studying with Auer, and Heifetz continued as Auer's student for about 6 years (according to Axelrod's interviews with Heifetz) -- so it would be difficult to understand how Heifetz could have been "fully trained" when he started his course of study with Auer. On the other hand, there is no doubt that Heifetz at about age 6 (when Auer seems to have first heard him) already was a fantastic violinist. I quote Weschler-Vered on what he says occurred on Auer's first encounter with Heifetz: "With ill-concealed impatience [because Auer already "had enough of these little geniuses"], the Maestro [i.e., Auer] sat down and invited the boy [i.e., Heifetz] to play. Nonchalantly, Jascha proceeded to play the Mendelssohn Concerto and then Paganini's twenty-fourth Caprice. When the child had finished, Auer was speechless and his eyes were filled with tears. After a long moment of silence he approached the boy, embraced him and said simply that he had never heard such beautiful violin playing. There he was, the great Maestro, who had listened to the finest artists of the time, proclaiming the little boy the best of them all."

January 9, 2014 at 03:41 AM · For Elise and Stanley: Look at JASCHA HEIFETZ Early Years in Russia, pp 72-73. Charles

January 9, 2014 at 02:16 PM · Yes, the Heifetz book on "early years in Russia" makes clear that practically every teacher he had before he ever met Auer was overwhelmed when they first heard him. Of course, Leopold Auer was one of the greatest violinists and violin teachers of all time. And it is likely that Heifetz learned considerably from an interpretive point of view.

But from the reports and the very, very few juvenile recordings, the boy's technical mastery and ability to build a phrase was there before Auer ever heard him.

Interestingly, the biographies of Paganini make clear that as a child he surpassed every teacher he had within weeks.

January 9, 2014 at 02:39 PM · For me there is no real answer to this question. But my vote goes to Hassid and Sarasate...thinking Sarasate live his last years (and recorded) in the 20th century. But talking from my heart, and no thinking in technical perfection and other issues my vote goes to Szeryng and Kuijken.

January 9, 2014 at 07:39 PM · Greetings,

Sander, agree with most of your posts here. However, although Auer was perhaps one of the best violinists of his time, there is not much evidence to show he was one of the all time greats.

The question of how much Heifetz learned form him from an interpretative perspective is admittedly mostly idle speculation but I think it depends on how one thinks of learning as much as anything. Milstein said that Auer had only a very rudimentary understanding of Bach and not much to say about it and It was in the short romantic works that he always commented a lot.

The `secret` f Auer`s teaching was in my opinion the realization that if you put ten of the most outstanding and hungry talents together in a room they would feed off each other like crazy. So it then becomes a question of how much did they all learn from each other with Auer as catalyst.

Galamian wa

s smart enough to use this approach at meadowmount and in a similar way Yfrah Neaman did this with his masterclass teaching at the Guildhall.



January 9, 2014 at 09:40 PM · Buri:

Yeah, that's pretty much what I've thought all these years. But this recent book about the Heifetz young years really gives a different impression, backed up by considerable documentation (letters from teachers, family, Heifetz himself, other violinists who studied with Auer). Apparently, although Auer was not as much a "hands-on" (pardon the pun) teacher, his musical insights and opinions had a substantial impact on Heifetz and were a major influence on him throughout his life (as an artist and as a teacher himself). And, apparently, Auer was one hell of violinist. Even in those few geriatric recordings he made, you can hear flickers of a master.

Interesting point.



January 9, 2014 at 09:57 PM · Greetings,

well you'd have to be be a pretty good teacher or the young talents wouldn't go there in the first place. I have always loved his book, especially the essay on interpretation which I think is a must read for all musicians. I also followed his advice when I was younger and explored the music of Vieuxtemp a great deal.



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