The World's Greatest Violinists - Top Ten List

Stradivarius Violins

The World's Greatest Violinists - Top Ten List

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Any list of the world’s greatest anything is completely subjective and this one isn’t any different. This is my list of the ten greatest violinists based on my experience and my personal taste in music.

I have imposed only two restrictions on these selections:

  1. There must be at least one recording available that was made by the artist. (This eliminates any violinist who died before 1900).
  2. The violinist must have survived the test of time. (There may be many brilliant young violinists out there who will appear on future lists but let them wait their turn.)

I have limited my list to the top ten violinists and I have presented them in order of their date of birth. I have not made any attempt to rate them since their recordings span a hundred years, which is reflected in their quality.

The recording that I selected for each artist is based on my personal taste and it’s availability on Utube. I have deliberately avoided using a particular piece of music more than once to preclude direct comparisons. The following table provides more details on the individual artists:

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THE WORLD'S GREATEST VIOLINISTS (In order of Date of Birth)

NAME
DATE OF BIRTH
DATE OF DEATH
PLACE OF BIRTH
SELECTION PLAYED
Pablo de Sarasate
1844
1908
Pamplona, Spain
Zigeunerweisen - Sarasate
Fritz Kreisler
1875
1962
Vienna, Austria
Caprice Vennois # 2 - Kreisler
Mischa Elman
1891
1967
Talnoye (Talne), Russia
Traumerei - Schuman
Jascha Heifetz
1901
1987
Vilnius, Lithuania
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto - First Movement
Zino Francescatti
1902
1991
Marseilles, France
Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso - St, Saens
David Oistrakh
1908
1974
Odessa, Ukraine
Clair de Lune - Debussy
Yehudi Menuhin
1916
1999
New York, New York
Hungarian Dance No. 5 - Brahms
Isaac Stern
1920
2001
Krzemieniec, Poland
Tchaikovsky Violn Concerto in D
Sandor Lakatos
1924
1994
Budapest, Hungary
Carnival of Venice - Paganini
Itzhak Perlman
1945
------
Tel Aviv, Israel
Schindler's List - John Williams

Pablo de Sarasate

Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908)

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Fortunately, I was able to locate one of his recordings, which was made in 1904. Born in Pamplona, Spain in 1844, he made his first public concert at the age of eight. He made his Paris debut as a concert violinist in 1860.

In addition to playing the violin, he composed more than 50 pieces, mostly for violin and piano, including Zigeunerweisen, which has been played by nearly every violin virtuoso since then.

In addition, Sarasate’s Spanish influence can be heard in Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, Biset’s Carmen and Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso which were either written expressly for Sarasate or dedicated to him.

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Zigeunerweisen - Sarasate

Fritz Kreisler

Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962)

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Fritz Kreisler was my mother’s favorite violinist and one of the reasons that I am so fond of violin music today.

He was born in Vienna, Austria in 1875 and his talent was recognized when he was only four years old. At age seven he entered the Vienna Conservatory and gave his first performance when he was only nine. He made his U.S. debut in 1888 and his London debut in 1902.

During his 61-year career, he composed 4 operettas, 8 cadenzas, 1 concerto and more than 40 pieces for violin and piano. Among his best-known compositions are Liebesleid, Liebesfreud, Caprice Vennois and Schon Rosmarin.

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Caprice Viennois Op.# 2 - Kreisler

Mischa Elman

Mischa Elman (1891-1967)

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Although I was familiar with Mischa Elman’s name, I was not that familiar with his work. Born in Talnoye near Kiev in the Ukraine in 1891, it was apparent at an early age that he had perfect pitch.

He first studied at the Imperial Academy of Music in Odessa and later at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He made his London debut in 1905 and played Carnegie Hall in 1908.

He sometimes performed in as many as 107 concerts in a 29-week season. Famed for his passionate style and beautiful tone, his recordings spanned more than 50 years starting in 1906.

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Traumerei - Schuman

Jascha Heifetz

Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987)

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Jascha Heifetz was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1901. He made his public debut at age seven and entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at age nine.

At age twelve he met Fritz Kreisler for the first time. After accompanying him at the piano on the Mendelssohn concerto, Kreisler said "We may as well break our fiddles across our knees".

In 1917, Jascha Heifetz first performed at Carnegie Hall and in 1925 he became an American citizen. Heifetz made his first recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1917 and remained with them for most of his career.

His technical command of his instrument and his ability to play with stunning precision is regarded by many critics as unequaled.

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Mendelssohn Violin Concerto - First Movement

Zino Francescatti

Zino Francescatti (1902-1991)

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Zino Francescatti was born in Marseilles, France in 1902 to a musical family. He gave his first public recital at age five and played the Beethoven concerto at age ten. In 1928, he met Ravel and accompanied him on a tour of Britain

When he returned to Paris he was discouraged by how difficult it was to earn money as a solo violinist so he took a steady section job with the Orchestre Straram and began teaching at the Ecole Normale. Around 1939, his international career began to flourish.

His career peaked in 1947 and his playing was described as having effortless technique, warmth of expression and tonal elegance. After retiring in 1976, he sold his celebrated "Hart" Stradivarius of 1727 and established the Zino Francescatti Foundation to assist young violinists.

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Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso - St Saens)

David Oistrakh

David Oistrakh (1908-1974)

David Oistrakh was born in Odessa, Russia in 1908 into a family of Jewish merchants. He began his violin studies at age five and entered the Odessa Conservatory at age fifteen. In 1927, he relocated to Moscow where he met and later married pianist Tamara Rotareva.

From 1934 onward, he taught at the Moscow Conservatory. After the end of the war, he traveled to other countries in the Soviet bloc.

In 1968, he celebrated his 60th birthday by performing the Tchaikovsky concerto in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

He is considered to be one of the preeminent violinists of the 20th Century.

Clair de lune - Debussy

Yehudi Menuhin

Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999)

Yehudi Menuhin was born in New York City in 1916 to Jewish parents who were originally from Belarus. He began violin instructions at age four and gave his first solo violin performance at age seven. In 1929, he played in Berlin under Bruno Walter and in 1932, he recorded Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B minor with the composer himself conducting. He performed for the Allied soldiers during World War II and in 1947 he returned to Germany to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. During his long career he was known for his profound interpretations and for his exploration of music outside the classical realm.

Hungarian Dance No. 5 - Brahms

Isaac Stern

Isaac Stern (1920-2001)

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Isaac Stern was born in 1920 into a Jewish family in Krzemieniec, Poland, but he was only fourteen months old when they moved to San Francisco. In 1928, he enrolled at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and he made his public debut in 1936 at age 15.

In 1940, he began performing with Russian-born pianist Alexander Zakin which, continued up until 1977. Isaac Stern was best known for his recordings and for discovering young musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and Pincus Zukerman.

In the 1960s he played a major role in saving Carnegie Hall from demolition. Isaac Stern is one of only two violinists from this list that I have heard in live concerts – the other is Itzhak Perlman.

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Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D

Sandor Lakatos

Sandor Lakatos (1924-1994)

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Sandor Lakatos was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1924. Little is known about his early years but it can be assumed that like most Gypsy violinists, he had no formal musical training and learned to play music by listening to it rather than by reading it.

He was considered to be by many people, the "king of the Gypsy violinists". He made numerous recordings and was featured for many years at "the Matyas Pince restaurant (Mathias Cellars) in Budapest.

When I visited there in 1990, another group had replaced him. He died in 1994 but his music lives on in his recordings.

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Carnival of Venice - Paganini

Itzhak Perlman

Itzhak Perlman (1945 - ++++)

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Itzhak Perlman was born in Tel Aviv, Israel in 1945. At age four he contracted polio and had to learn to walk on crutches. Even today, he uses crutches or a scooter to get around and he plays the violin sitting down.

He studied at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv and gave his first recital at age 10 before moving to New York to study at the Juliard School. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show twice in 1958 and made his debut at Carnegie Hall in 1963.

While primarily a solo artist, he has performed with Yo-Yo Ma, Jesse Norman, Isaac Stern and Pincus Zukerman. He has also played jazz with Oscar Peterson and has been a soloist for a number of movie scores including Schindler’s List.

My wife and I had the good fortune of seeing him perform with the Detroit Symphony in the mid to late 1990s.

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Schindler's List - John Williams

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Comments 2 comments

Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 4 years ago from San Francisco

Thank you for sharing this. I have been out of action way too long. I think my last live classical concert was in the late 80's.


nbhumble profile image

nbhumble 3 years ago from Staffs, UK

You have made a wonderful job of an almost impossible task of distilling the list of greats down to just 10, and I have little to dispute with you on your choice (the only one I am not really familiar with is Lakatos). I would like to offer one additional name, who I know falls outside of your criteria as he died in 1840, but what list of the greatest violinists could ever be complete without reference to the man that nearly everyone you mention above would state as the greatest of them all, Nicolo Paganini.

Thanks again for a thought provoking and informative hub.

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