The 20 Greatest Violinists of All Time

Who are the finest violinists ever to have been recorded on disc? We asked 100 of today’s leading players to name their inspirations…

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The 20 Greatest Violinists of All Time
The 20 Greatest Violinists of All Time as chosen by 100 of today's best performers
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It’s the instrument that inspired solo masterpieces from Bach to Bartók, that leads the way in chamber groups and symphony orchestras, that is equally at home in gypsy, klezmer and jazz groups alike. Just where would music be without the wonderful violin?

And in the right hands, few instruments can match the violin for displays of thrilling virtuosity, for expressing the full gamut of human emotions and for sheer beauty of sound. As a result, few instrumentalists have had quite the same legendary status as enjoyed by the greatest violinists. In fact, stories concerning the violin and those who play it have sometimes gone beyond the realms of reality – for instance, at his prime in the 1820s, Niccolò Paganini was believed by some to made a pact with the devil himself.

We asked 100 of today’s best players to tell us the violinists who have inspired them most. Each had three choices, with the stipulation that they must have heard them either on disc or live. We totted up the results to produce the following Top 20 of the greatest violinists of the recorded era…

• Read more: Find out how the violinists voted... 

20. George Enescu

(1881-1955) Romanian

George Enescu was a prodigiously gifted musician whose celebrity was limited by his own modesty and dislike of showmanship for its own sake. Not only a violinist, he was Romania’s leading composer, a distinguished conductor and a teacher whose pupils included Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux, Ivry Gitlis, Christian Ferras and Ida Haendel. From the age of four he studied violin with the gypsy player Lae Chioru and made his first public appearance, aged eight, as a violinist in 1889. Enescu then studied composition and violin at the Paris Conservatoire, supplementing his official violin lessons with the Paris-based Cuban violinist José White. He toured widely as a violinist (both as a solo and chamber musician) and conductor, but regarded his chief vocation as a composer. His unshowily pristine and song-like violin playing is preserved in the few recordings he made in the US during the 1920s, and his 1940s recordings of Bach’s Solo Sonatas
and Partitas.

Essential recording: 
The Columbia Solo recordings – works by Chausson, Corelli, Enescu, Handel, Kreisler and Pugnani
Opus Kura OPK 2086

 

19. Frank Peter Zimmerman

(b.1965) German

At the heart of Frank Peter Zimmermann’s repertoire are the great violin concertos. ‘I always go over the works I’ve often played as if I had never known them, seeking for fresh perspectives,’ he says. It’s this searching spirit and thoughtful intelligence that distinguishes Zimmermann’s playing, not forgetting an unflappable technique and pure, warm and strong sound. After studies in Germany and Amsterdam, the German violinist embarked on his solo career in 1983, soon performing around the world and recording many of the major concertos for EMI. Zimmermann has also made his mark with contemporary music, premiering works by Matthias Pintscher, Brett Dean and Augusta Read Thomas. But it’s playing chamber music that gives Zimmermann the most satisfaction at the moment, he recently told BBC Music Magazine. In 2007 he formed the Trio Zimmermann with viola player Antoine Tamestit and cellist Christian Poltéra. Their thrilling Beethoven String Trios CD on the BIS record label won a BBC Music Magazine Chamber Award in 2013.

Essential recording: 
Beethoven: String Trios With Antoine Tamestit (viola), Christian Poltéra (cello)
BIS SACD 1857

 

18. Reinhard Goebel

(b.1952) German

Goebel established himself as a Baroque violin soloist and inspirational director of the period-instrument Musica Antiqua Köln, which he founded in 1973 following violin instruction from Franzjosef Maier, Saschko Gawriloff, Eduard Melkus and Marie Leonhardt, and musicological studies at Cologne University. Severe right-arm tendonitis restricted his solo playing from 1990, but he continued to perform with the ensemble, largely bowing his violin left-handed. Renowned for its attention to the details of Baroque style, Musica Antiqua Köln performed, recorded and toured worldwide, focusing on historical performance of late 17th- and early 18th-century German music by composers such as Heinichen, Schmelzer, Biber, Telemann and members of the Bach family and winning several international awards. But further tendonitis problems resulted in Goebel dissolving the ensemble in 2007 and concentrating on a conducting career, varying his repertoire but still spending considerable time promoting the music of JS Bach and his contemporaries.

Essential recording:
Telemann: Sinfonia Spirituosa; String Concertos. Jaap Ter Linden (cello); Musica Antiqua Köln
Deutsche Grammophon E471 4922

 

17. Christian Ferras

(1933-82) French

A former child prodigy, throughout the 1950s and ’60s Christian Ferras was among the violin-playing elite. He was still a teenager when he made his Berlin Philharmonic debut playing the Beethoven Concerto with Karl Böhm. Such was his impact over the following decade that he was signed up by Herbert von Karajan with a unique deal to record the major violin repertoire over 20 discs. In the event the signing was sadly curtailed due to Ferras’s struggles with depression and alcohol. By the mid-1970s the engagements diary of this prince of violinists was virtually empty, and following a brief come-back when he was reported to be playing better than ever, he tragically took his own life. Ferras’s playing combined exquisite tonal purity with exemplary technique. Whether playing Mozart sonatas with his long-term playing partner Pierre Barbizet, the Brahms Double Concerto with cellist Paul Tortelier or premiering contemporary works such as the Honegger Sonata, he created the impression of having a hotline to the composer.

Essential recording:
L’ Art de Christian Ferras
DG 480 6655 (10 CDs)

 

16. Bronisław Huberman

(1882-1947) Polish

Of his numerous teachers, Huberman credited Carl Grigorovich as his principal influence. A child prodigy praised by Joachim and Brahms, Huberman shot to fame by participating in singer Adelina Patti’s farewell concert in Vienna, 1895. He became a dominant musical figure worldwide, particularly after c1920, performing the concertos of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Paganini and Tchaikovsky, sonatas and solos by Beethoven, Sarasate and Wieniawski, salon pieces and violin/piano arrangements (notably of Schubert songs). His interpretations were renowned for their striking individuality, artistry and integrity, even if his technique and style were somewhat retrospective, unpredictable and subjects of deprecatory criticism by some fellow violinists. Nevertheless, he enthusiastically endorsed the use of aluminium bow hair and steel strings and retrained his left hand sufficiently to resume his career following injuries suffered in a plane crash in 1937. He opposed the Nazi regime and was instrumental in forming the Palestine Symphony (later Israel Philharmonic) Orchestra in 1936.

Essential recording: 
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 with the Vienna Philharmonic/George Szell
Naxos 8.110903