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20 greatest violinists of all time

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

greatest violinists ever

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?

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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 (you can see how they voted here). We, then totted up the results to produce the following Top 20 of the greatest violinists of the recorded era…

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

Check out George Enescu on Spotify

19 Frank Peter Zimmerman 

(b.1965) German

Frank Peter Zimmerman

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

Check out Frank Peter Zimmerman on Spotify

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 with 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, (which we named one of the best orchestras in the world) 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

Bronisław Huberman

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

15 Leonid Kogan

(1924-82) Russian

Leonid Kogan

Such was the dominance of David Oistrakh in the Soviet Union that the brilliance of his younger compatriot Leonid Kogan slipped comparatively under the radar. Born in the Ukraine, he studied in Moscow before his victory at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, performing Paganini’s First Concerto, launched his concert career in earnest. A model of restraint both on and off the stage, Kogan’s playing was notable for his immaculate technique and intonation and a purity of sound that saw vibrato kept to a minimum. Not that this meant lack of passion, as is amply revealed by recordings that range from works by Beethoven and Brahms to those by his Soviet contemporaries, whom he regularly championed. As a chamber musician he was in his element, forming a notable trio with pianist Emil Gilels and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich or, later on in his life, accompanied by his daughter Nina. Sadly, that life came to an all-too-early end when he died aged just 58 on a train on the way to a concert engagement.

ESSENTIAL RECORDING: Beethoven, Brahms and Franck Violin Sonatas with Nina Kogan (piano)

Orfeo C657051B

Check out Leonid Kogan on Spotify

14 Ivry Gitlis

(1922-2019) Israeli

Ivry Gitlis

One of the most charismatic and underestimated violinists of his times, Gitlis has been as expert in jazz, pop and gypsy styles as in Classical, Romantic and contemporary repertoire. His performances sometimes seem eccentric and undisciplined but are full of character and inward feeling, emphasising individual expression and musical intuition over textual, stylistic and historical awareness. Trained principally in Paris, he studied further with George Enescu, Jacques Thibaud and Carl Flesch and began his recording career with an award-winning coupling of Berg’s Violin Concerto and Chamber Concerto. He toured widely from the 1950s, performing in particular the Berg, Bartók, Sibelius and Stravinsky concertos, championing new music by Maderna, Xenakis and others, and even participating in projects with John Lennon and The Rolling Stones. His technical facility and subtly varied vibrato usage are especially striking. In demand as a teacher, writer, artist, film composer and actor, Gitlis also served as a ‘special ambassador’ to UNESCO.

ESSENTIAL RECORDING: The Art of Ivry Gitlis: Violin Concertos by Bartók, Berg, Hindemith, Mendelssohn, Sibelius and more 
Brilliant Classics 9145

13 Adolf Busch

 (1891-1952) German

Adolf Busch

A pupil of Joseph Joachim – disciples Willi Hess and Bram Eldering, Busch became revered not only as a solo violinist and composer but also as founder of the Busch Chamber Players and the Malboro Festival, Vermont, and the moving spirit behind three distinguished chamber ensembles: the Busch Quartet, a duo with pianist (and his future son-in-law) Rudolf Serkin, and the Busch Trio with his cellist brother, Hermann, and Serkin. Busch’s playing, like Joachim’s, was disciplined, precise and authoritative. His tone was pure and sonorous and he consistently exploited technical adroitness to musical ends, incorporating portamento tastefully, varying vibrato subtly, and bowing with finesse. He became renowned for his interpretations of Beethoven and Brahms concertos, also championing works by Reger, Suter and Busoni; and his chamber ensembles established their pre-eminence in works by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms.

ESSENTIAL RECORDING: Beethoven: Violin Sonatas Opp. 12/3, 24 & 47  With Rudolf Serkin (piano)
Naxos 8.110954

12 Pinchas Zukermann

(b.1948) Israeli

Pinchas Zukermann

Now 65, Zukerman  first reached wide international prominence in the musical circle of friends around Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré in the 1960s and ’70s. He currently lives in Canada where he is music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. As a conductor he has followed a parallel career since first taking up the baton with the English Chamber Orchestra in 1970.

After drawing the attention of cellist Pablo Casals and Isaac Stern as a violin prodigy in Israel, Zukerman went to New York’s Juilliard School to study with Ivan Galamian. He has a personal sound that is easy to spot – intense, passionate and strong-centred – which enhances a wide range of repertoire, perhaps strongest in the heartlands of the great Romantic concertos as well as Beethoven and Mozart. In an interview for The Strad a few years ago, he remarked that a personal sound is something that a violinist is born with and that he/she can develop but not essentially change: ‘It’s about DNA’.

ESSENTIAL RECORDING: Great Violin Concertos – Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky With Chicago Symphony/Daniel Barenboim DG E453 1422

11 Arthur Grumiaux 

(1921-86) Belgian

Arthur Grumiaux

Arthur Grumiaux was one of the great aristocrats of the violin but was also a remarkable pianist, as witness a unique 1957 recording he made of Brahms and Mozart sonatas playing both parts! The complete opposite of a temperamental maestro, Grumiaux was at his happiest playing chamber music with friends and colleagues, most notably the great Romanian pianist Clara Haskil – he was never the same after she suffered a fatal fall at a railway station on the way to one of their duo recitals. Modest to a fault, he took the adulation he won during the mid-1950s, after championing Paganini’s rediscovered Fourth Concerto, very much in his stride. Following years of coping with diabetes, he died from a stroke aged just 65. For Grumiaux, purity in everything was paramount. His bowing action and left-hand facility were near-flawless, resulting in a unique, golden sound that can be savoured on his classic recordings of Bach and Mozart.   

ESSENTIAL RECORDING: Bach: Complete Solo Sonatas and Partitas 

Decca 438 7362

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