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Are today's top violinists indistinguishable?


Hank Schutz
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If I used to think so, I don't now. Trying to replace my extinct Barber concerto convinced me. I find that I like a lot of what Gil Shaham does. A couple weeks ago I got into the car and tuned into the Glazunov concerto, in progress. Even though I've always loved it (sorry) the interpretation was really refreshing, and made me want to replace it too. So now I am looking for a cd for the Barber (I think with the Korngold) and the Glazunov, all with Gil Shaham.

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Yup, Shaham's Cd of the Barber is combined with the Korngold, lovely.

I have to agree with the comments about Bell's movement while playing. Some of his movements are almost painful for me to watch. It was as if he was going to bend himself backwards at times and not be able to pull himself up. I am a very visual person when at a classical performance. I love watching the orchestra and soloists, not so with Joshua Bell.

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On Bell: If you don't like Bell's playing, you're certainly entitled to your opinion. If you haven't heard him recently, however, I'd recommend hearing him again the next time he's in the area. His playing has evolved quite a bit over the years; he's not the same player he was at 17. He's one of the few players I always make time to hear when he's in town. He's also a tremendously nice, down-to-earth person.

On homogenous sound: I just don't hear it. I do think certain stylist details go in and out of popularity, but that doesn't make players indistinguishable. You see similar trends in fine art -- you might have a movement toward impressionism or realism or cubism, but just because artists share certain characteristics doesn't mean you can't distinguish Monet from another impressionist painter.

On Miss DeLay: I've heard several people say that DeLay students sound alike. I don't quite hear that either. My husband was in DeLay's studio along with Lin, Salerno-Sonnenberg, and McDuffie, and I don't think any of them sound remotely alike. Besides, few (if any) students studied exclusively with DeLay. She was more of a finishing teacher -- someone you went to after years of study with other teachers. It puzzles me that three or four years in her studio is somehow supposed to negate the influence of all of someone's other teachers.

As always, your mileage may vary.

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Quote:

I have to agree with the comments about Bell's movement while playing. Some of his movements are almost painful for me to watch. It was as if he was going to bend himself backwards at times and not be able to pull himself up.


I agree. I strongly prefer to watch violinists who do not make any extra motions such as Kreisler, Thibaud, Heifetz, Oistrakh, Milstein, Menuhin, Gitlis (he is an exuberant player but surprisingly concise in his movements), Ricci etc.

Back to the subject. I do find that I have difficulty identifying many of the contemporary players too. One of the few I did successfully identify were Hilary Hahn and Gidon Kremer. Hahn has a very distinct, sustained sound (without annoying "swelling" sound that many others would make during long cantabile sections). She also posseses a strong, firm sound that has an extremely clear focus. Kremer's pianissimo has a transparency that is quite unique. At the same time, he is capable of attacking strings with enormous vigor when music demands such approaches.

My comments regarding Bell and Shaham have been rather negative, if one reads my previous posts. I am with OTH regarding Bell. I would not say he has a poor tone, but I don't find his sound nor interpretations to be particularly interesting or inspiring. It is rather saccharine (or cutsy as OTH says), lacking the bite and excitement.

I have not been able to like Gil Shaham a whole a lot. His playing is also rather sugarly and affected for my taste. Sometime ago I heard his recordings of the Paganini sonatas (for violin and guitar) and the Svensen Romance. The Paganini lacked the daredeviltry of Gitlis, Ricci and Markov and the Svensen was so sugarly, lacked the aristocracy and nobility of the Grumiaux recording. I heard some other recordings of his, but my impression remains more or less the same. I strongly prefer the "other" Shaham, the under-publisized Haggai Shaham. He made an amazing album of music by Joseph Achron several years ago on Biddulph label. He is one of the few violinists who can almost match the "oldies" in this kind of repertoire. He recently recorded the third and fourth violin concerti by Hubay. He does not have much competition in this repertoire. Only other recording of any status is the Rosand recording of the third on Vox label. The complete set on Hungaroton is nowhere near as good.

One of the thing that irks me about discussion of contemporary violinists in this board is that they tend to revolve around the same players. There are a lot of interesting players who have been rarely, if ever mentioned such as Elisabeth Batiashvili, Haggai Shaham, Mirijam Contzen, Catherine Manoukian, Alexander Markov, Akiko Suwanai, Tasmin Little, Sherry Kloss or even Gidon Kremer. Among the post-Heifetz generations, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Willy Boskovsky, Max Rostal, Guila Bustabo, Tibor Varga, Johanna Martzy, Alberto Lysy and Ivry Gitlis' names have also rarely come up. Some of their recordings are rather difficult to locate, but it is possible to find them (after all, I was able to find their recordings!). So, I would suggest to listen to more variety of violinists, perharps, so violinists-related discussions will be more interesting.

T.

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Toscha

I knew we could rely on you for a sensible reply.

I feel there are a number of issues here. Are we judging modern violinists on their recordings?, (in which case I can't see how we can be sure they have a small sound, could be equally due to the different recording techniques /mixes etc). If we are judging on live performances, lets remember that everyone can have off days, and not judge on just one or two.

Also styles of playing have changed tremendously over the last century or so...we can tell because we have old recordings. Ever listened to the old recordings of Elgar conducting the Enigma variations for example? So much portamento in the orchestra you begin to feel seasick. No orchestra would play like that now, but we assume Elgar was happy with this interpretation, and it was quite accepted at the time. Violinists of the time used lots more vibrato and portamento than we expect now, and played more flexibly, less constrained with what was on the page. I can't see how we can compare the styles of then with today's styles, they are from a different era but because of that they have their own charm and colour.

And we all have preferred styles and preferred interpretations. It doesn't mean to say that some are bad and some are good....just different. And that is probably the nub of the matter. As long as we can determine that there is a difference, then there will be distinguishability, (is that a word??). And maybe at the end of the day it is a case of listening more attentively.

Jane

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Quote:

I feel there are a number of issues here. Are we judging modern violinists on their recordings?, (in which case I can't see how we can be sure they have a small sound, could be equally due to the different recording techniques /mixes etc). If we are judging on live performances, lets remember that everyone can have off days, and not judge on just one or two.


Yes, that is quite right. It is not really a fair judgement to assess the quantity/volume of a violinist based only on recording or a single performance. Placement and quality of microphone can enhance or reduce the sound. Also, the acoustic of venues can make a huge difference. A great violinist famed for his/her rich sound may not be fully appreciated by their audience if they play in a venue with poor acoustic.

I also agree with the change of performing style and taste. I don't expect today's orchestras to play like the orchestras from 1930s. At the same time, I appreciate their old style for what they are.

It really comes down to one's taste. But in order to enrich and develop one's taste, listen to more players outside of one's "normal" diet. One will be greatly surprised by what he/she has been missing.

T.

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I agree that there are always some less-famous names that we don`t listen to and can play better than the great names. Toscha mentioned Elisabeth Batiashvili, to my hapiness.

But, having said that, I feel that Joshua Bell is becoming an "easy target" among violinists. We know how the market works nowadays, I`m sure there are a lot of people controlling his career, choosing his clothes, haircuts, and, believe me, his repertoire.

I also prefer less "sugarly" violinists, but let`s face it, most of non-musicians love it. I have met hundreds of people who know nothing about classical music, but became interested on learning it because of "the red violin" ( the movie, of course) and it`s soundtrack.

About the previous comparisons: I agree about Elmar Oliveira and Joseph Silverstein( they are from other generations, Elmar was born in 1950, I believe), but honestly, regarding to sound, William Preucill is not better than him. And I don`t think Gil Shaham is so different than him musically, probably he`s less criticized just because he`s not a "sex symbol" like Bell.

I don`t see Joshua Bell as one of the best violinists of all times, but I highly respect on him, because he popularizes the violin( among a very large public), and he`s not a fraud, but an honest player. This combination is becoming very rare these days.

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I don`t see Joshua Bell as one of the best violinists of all times, but I highly respect on him, because he popularizes the violin( among a very large public), and he`s not a fraud, but an honest player. This combination is becoming very rare these days.


I agree about the honesty of the player. It is starting to become more important to me that the player believes in what they are doing and is not being manipulated by media hype, or pushed into repertoire by their recording company or whoever.

I will also second (or is it third or fourth by now) the comments about Elisabeth Batishivili!

Jane

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  • 2 weeks later...

I've been away, this is a good thread!

I think it is easy to criticise any player, one could level faults at almost everyone (J.H. included) but I prefer to enjoy each talented player for his or her individuality.

I enjoy J.B's playing and admire him a great deal. It isn't always to my taste but hey......he's a good fiddler.

The initial post discussed how there may be less individuality these days than before. This is almost certainly the case, although like many things in modern life the extremes are narrowing and we all get to see a global picture with all 'artistic' pursuits in general. Also in sport we see the same serves in tennis/swings in golf etc. etc.

What I do feel though is that whilst we have lost the really enigmatic players (Violin), today's players are more suited to all stlyes/periods. Whereas previously a player might make his/her mark on the strength of classical,romantic or baroque they are more 'rounded' today - and this doesn't apply just to soloists.

I disagree that any single teacher turns out players that sound the same - my teacher used the same technical approach to interpretation with all his students, but essentialy the personality will nearly always shine through.

If you lined the class up one by one and had them play the same piece, you'd notice that the attention to the place in bow/vibrato/shifting etc. would be only fractionaly different, but the overall effect would never be the same. I don't believe this is different with any modern teacher's class.

I once heard the recital of one of my players and was shocked that her renditions were so close to mine that it could have been me. This told me she was either an excellent student or sadly lacking in individuality. Once a player is doing things correctly it is not acceptable to mould every last phrase to the 'nth degree, until there is no sponteneity or personal feeling - this also is not the case with the big players - adaptions to the tempi, mood/style, use of vibrato etc. are all left to the individual (and only the concerti learnt during the strict class stage would logically be possible to all be similar).

The extremes have disappeared but the quality is higher and there is no shortage of interesting and varied performances (live or recorded) to be enjoyed. Don't cry for the past, enjoy the present.

T_D

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Hey, doc, we've missed you!

As for students of a teacher sounding similar, ("I disagree that any single teacher turns out players that sound the same") you've actually argued a case for it through your example of your own student.

But I don't think it's a bad thing at all. I can recognize Anne-Sophie Mutter's Brahms concerto as much by her idiosyncrasies (the vibrato, the machine-gun trills, the tone, the intonation) as by her similarities in phrasing to that of Szeryng, with whom she studied. Obviously students of one teacher can sound the same and different--unique personalities and styles, but common phrasings and even common technique.

Tradition is cool.

(I think I basically just repeated what you said!)

J.

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'Hey, doc, we've missed you!'

Thanks, and I was considering retiring.

The example with the one student did indeed reinforce the argument but some others sound very dissimilar - thank goodness!!

'the same and different' uh-ha, if the good things are the same and the student makes the bad (or less good) things different that is progress! and paying homage to tradition also. Result.

T_D

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  • 3 years later...

There are so many amazing violinists that I wish everyone on here could readily hear. I have a record collection of over 30,000 records....more than 95% of which are of violinists. Some of my favorites include Edward Gratch, Zhuk, Tatiana Grindenko, Ilya Kayer, Vadim Repin, Franco Gulli, Ivry Gitlis, Huguette Fernandez, Peter Csaba, Norman Carol, Julian Sitkovetsky, Oscar Shumsky, Karl Suske, Camilla Wicks, Tibor Varga, Grigory Zhislin, Yoko Sato, J. Dumont, Duci de Kerekjarto, Victor Pikaizen, Cornelia Vasile, Roman Rubato, Julian Olevsky, and the list could go on. One day, I hope I have the time to join WQXR or another radio station, where I could play a ton of my recordings, many of which would impress everyone.

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There are a number of players with very distinguishable tones. Frank Peter Zimmerman has a very shimmering, trebly sound. Sarah Chang is unmistakeable, like it or not. James Ehnes has a very distinguishable style and exquisite taste that I don't think, at this point, anyone matches. I don't know enough of Znaider, who is incredible. I have the recording of his Bruch and Nielsen which is out of this world. Bell is very distinguishable. I tried and I tried, but I don't like Gil Shaham. I don't like his vibrato, it's too shallow for me and I don't feel like the weight he puts in his bowarm matches what he does in the left hand. For me, those are the most distinguishable violinists. Actually, Vengerov too. I find his tone strange.

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To be fair, a very successful soloist on the current circuit told me he thinks that of all the ones out of the new brat pack, Joshua Bell has by far the most to say as a musician.

As for teachers making their students sound the same... with Delay maybe this is true, but not at the very top of her studio. Cho Liang Lin, Nigel Kennedy, Schlomo Mintz, Midori, Sarah Chang, Gil Shaham... that's quite a varied bunch of players in a lot of ways. However, in the less famous segment of her studio, A LOT of Delay's students sound nearly identical... that same type of bow technique, the same two dynamic range (loud and louder)... not that it's a bad thing. She's definately one of the most successful teachers ever, but yes, some teachers favor standardization.

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Thank you chaps for such an interesting thread.  I do play the

violin a bit but by no means a good player.  But I have

listened to many good violinists over the years.  I do go for

artists of the yesteryears.  Modern players, and I do say this

especially regarding Ms. Delay's pupils, do play within certain

boundaries.  Of course there are variations within these

boundaries.  But not to the extent as in the old days.

 Modern players tend to treat the violin as an instrument.

 There is nothing wrong as the violin is an instrument, just

like a racing car.  Therefore in a performance the racing car

must be shown to be able to do 250 mph, cut corners fast, do 0 -60

in 1second and so on.  A performance is accomplished once all

that have been done.  So they get all the notes right,

showed you they can do staccato, spicatto, fast scales and

arppegios and so.  And the instrument would have done its job

for the performer.  Whereas in the old days, the instrument

was not merely a musical instrument.  It was an instrument for

the performer to speak through, to express his feelings.  And

performers in those days did have very different feelings to

express, even they were taught by the same teacher (not Ms. Delay,

of course).  Compare Elman and Heifetz.  (a Rolls Royce

and a Ferrari!).  There is no question as to who is better.

 Just whether one prefers comfort or speed.

We, as normal human beings, do have different feelings so it is

normal that we associate ourselves to the performance of different

players.  I do prefer Elman to Heifetz as I like his style.

 But at the same time it cannot be denied that when it came to

pure technique, few can equal Heifetz.  There is nothing wrong

with liking a certain performer, same reason as "beauty in the eye

of the beholder".  A successful performer is one who "catches"

the feelings of the audience.  In order to do this, I think it

is necessary to do more than just cutting the corners, doing tricky

turns etc.  It is the expression of the inner feelings that

sorted out the man from the boys.  An example would be

Jacqueline du Pre and Yo Yo Ma playing the Elgar concerto.

 Even the same instrument was used, the inner feelings were

very different. So it is quite OK to like Josh Bell, or

Mutter or any body else as long as you think they have caught your

feelings. 

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Don't know if this is the right place to bring this up, but everyone goes on about how perfect Heifetz was... I'm not going to go into what I think of him as a musician, and no one can deny that he had superb technique, but this is a lot of hype in my opinion. Hillary Hahn, James Ehnes, FP Zimmerman, Leonidas Kavakos... these are all players who I've seen and own recordings of... ALL of them have the capacity to play "perfectly", with what I think is a much nicer tone than Heifetz. People say Heifetz is cold and whatnot, but when it comes to technique, automatically it is end of discussion? I think that's wrong. I've seen note perfect performances of Paganini, Brahms, Sibelius, Beethoven etc... so I don't get where this whole Heifetz as the perfect violinist comes from. I think a lot of that is emotional nostalgia. James Ehnes plays flawlessly... Hillary Hahn, while some consider her bland, doesn't ever play out of tune... where does this whole idea come from?

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Don't know if this is the right place to bring this up, but everyone goes on about how perfect Heifetz was... I'm not going to go into what I think of him as a musician, and no one can deny that he had superb technique, but this is a lot of hype in my opinion. Hillary Hahn, James Ehnes, FP Zimmerman, Leonidas Kavakos... these are all players who I've seen and own recordings of... ALL of them have the capacity to play "perfectly", with what I think is a much nicer tone than Heifetz. People say Heifetz is cold and whatnot, but when it comes to technique, automatically it is end of discussion? I think that's wrong. I've seen note perfect performances of Paganini, Brahms, Sibelius, Beethoven etc... so I don't get where this whole Heifetz as the perfect violinist comes from. I think a lot of that is emotional nostalgia. James Ehnes plays flawlessly... Hillary Hahn, while some consider her bland, doesn't ever play out of tune... where does this whole idea come from?

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Erika,

Absolutely, I agree. He was undoubtedly the most important violinist of the 20th century, if not the most important classical instrumentalist because he raised expectations to incredible levels. What I'm saying is that so many people say that no one will ever be Heifetz in technique... yes, no one will ever do that for our instrument again, but people have certainly attained (and surpassed) his standard as a player.

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My two cents worth:

Hilary Hahn (wonderfully controlled

vibrato, rare among today's violinists) and Josh Bell (A restrained

yet smoldering-with-intensity opening opening to Bruch G

minor) among younger violinists.

 Jasha Heifetz (the best vibrato ever) and Isaac

Stern (idiosyncratic yet compelling) among the last generation.

And Stuart Duncan (my overall

favorite) and Jason Carter (a solo in a live "Gospel Train"

with Del McCoury band that stopped the train for me) among

bluegrass fiddlers.

Saying Dorothy Delay has homogenized the

playing of many of today's current crop doesn't say much for the

ability of these violinists to think for themselves and develop

their own sound.  FWIW, I disagree.

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I think Heifetz is a little like the first guy to scale Mt. Everest. Yeah, a lot of people are doing it now, but it takes an amazing person to be the trailblazer.

FWIW, my husband studied with DeLay and thought one of her defining characteristics was that she tailored her style to the student and did not follow a one-size-fits-all approach.

Gosh, this is an ancient thread to be resurrected now.

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Let's face it, if somebody played exactly like Perlman there would be few complaints that the player wasn't original and yet if this happened in most other genres of music they would be cast off as an unoriginal imitator. In my opinion though, classical music does not give that much scope for originality of style in the broader sense.

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Heifetz did have superb technique, but what REALLY made him special was his amazing creativity in terms of violinistic nuances. Very often he would not play exactly the same way in repeated phrases and also if one listens to his recordings very carefully, he does not do what people expect, be it be rubato, glissandi or changing the tone color. He really thought out his interpretations for every piece he played without losing freshness.

It is true that many of the violinists today have smooth, well-polished sound, but I feel that finer NUANCES that made Heifetz, Kreisler, Thibaud, Enescu etc. special is very often missing. Also, apart from Kremer, Kantorow and Gitlis, I do not feel much of demonic drive that Heifetz had. One of the hallmark of Heifetz was his devil-may-care risk-taking. He was NOT afraid of playing with aggressive sound if he felt that the music demanded, rather than playing with merely a "pretty" tone. Of course, Heifetz was fully capable of playing with ravishing tone. Just listen to his recording of Saint-Saens "Havanaise" or "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. The elegance and suavity he plays these works have not been matched in my opinion (and yes, I have heard MANY).

I just wanted to emphasize the fact that what made Heifetz special was the combination of superb technique and creative musicianship. Emotional nostalgia? I don't think so!

T.

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