Sorting out the fluffy fiddle stars

Sorting out the fluffy fiddle stars


norman lebrecht

December 13, 2010

In the current issue of The Strad, I look at the ways that the cults of sex and celebrity have distorted the values of violin stardom.

Here’s a sampler:
The only column I ever had pulled from a newspaper for fear of criminal
libel was my fevered response to EMI’s launch of the Eurasian violinist,
Vanessa-Mae in 1994. The original album cover – it was later airbrushed – showed
a 15 year-old girl in a white see-through swimsuit pouting with a fiddle in the
middle of the sea. Given her tender age and the mature male profile of classical
record buyers, this strayed so far off the moral compass that my reasoned
analysis proved legally unprintable.


The Violin Player sold 3.5 million copies and made Vanessa-Mae a
household name, at least for the Warholian 15 minutes of fame. Then music hit
back. Her follow-ups flopped. She signed with Sony and was apparently dropped.
Every year since 2006, she has promised an opera-themed album, still awaited.
The best that can be said of Vanessa-Mae is that she played the best she could.  

The rest you’ll have to read in the magazine. By way of a further taster, though, you might enjoy the contender below in the Mendelssohn concerto on youtube.

Do not hesitate to post your reactions.


  • C. says:

    She’s holding that violin like it’s a dead, decaying piece of roadkill that she found on the side of the road!

  • alex says:

    Norman, this has to be a joke! That’s horrific! I was nervous when mediocrity began to rule, and then I saw this. It’s a new low, by far.

  • Peter says:

    I hope to read that someone has stolen her fiddle from under nose at a London tea house where Russian dissidents are poisoned with deadly radioactive isotopes. The producer, Karkowska, mentions that the music was considered unplayable, this has proven to be un-listenable. The LSO should be severely berated for having anything to do with this project. If I am totally wrong and it is really a joke, it is hardly humorous at all.

  • Marie Lamb says:

    Very startling! I was especially struck by her habit of “bending” notes in the upper register.
    She didn’t make me think of Heifetz; rather, her style sounded more like avant-garde jazz to this former jazz DJ’s ears. Perhaps that’s the sort of music that might be more suitable for her.

  • Marie Lamb says:

    Also, I do have to agree on how a lot of the young female artists seem to be marketed. As the new CDs come in, I see a lot of them in low-cut gowns, or in more casual outfits that seem to scream, “Oh, how-fashionable-I-am; look-but-don’t-ask-how-I-play.” While there’s nothing wrong with being young and attractive if you have the chops to back it up, what if some young woman comes along who is a major talent, but who isn’t Vogue cover material? Will such a woman get the recognition she deserves? And what happens once these women are no longer young and cute; will their labels and agents stand by them?

  • This is simply nauseating. I’m about to throw a tomato at the screen.

  • I saw this video a month or two ago on youTube, and there were very many negative comments, including one of my own. Tonight, they have all been removed and in their place are fawning gormless dross.
    Who is manipulating this?
    How can comments which were invited be then censored? Why does YouTube tolerate this kind of market censorship?

  • marvin says:

    I think we’re all being put on. That kind of playing is definitely not even up to basic professional standards. That is without doubt, some of the ugliest serious violin playing I have ever heard.

  • Stefan says:

    Mr. Lebrecht, there is more to this story than meets the eye (or ear). It isn’t quite as simple as just a case of sexy marketing. Someone appears to be responsible for a bit of deception and fakery here; for what purpose, I can’t quite fathom.
    Just listen to some of the audio excerpts on her website:
    THOSE performances are lovely (e.g. Sibelius, Mozart concerti, etc.) – they don’t sound like they could have been recorded by the freaky amateur in those ‘Virtuosity’ Youtube videos.
    And just take a look at all the accolades she has apparently received, also on her website.
    What on earth is going on here? Is that really the London Symphony? Who is paying for all this?
    NL replies: Yes, it is the London Symphony. Apparently, she is paying.

  • Marc says:

    You rate Anna Karkowska the same as Vanessa Mae. I disagree. I can listen to Vanessa Mae while Anna Karkowska playing makes me cringe and makes me stop the recording. Some of Vanessa Mae’s tunes are entertaining and fun to watch and on top of that she’s not pretending to be the best violinist ever.

  • Stefan says:

    I can’t say that I’m personally offended by her playing. I just find the whole premise to be very, very strange indeed. I think further investigation is warranted here. It’s just too weird. How do we explain the nice-sounding audio excerpts on her website? How can this all possibly be real?

  • Bill says:

    Certainly the most disgusting violin playing I have ever heard!! First I thought it ´s a joke, then I started realising that it is serious. What I find most disturbing is that a world class orchestra like the London Symphony is recording with her. Are they so much in need of money? Or are they so greedy that no matter how the soloist plays, as long as he/she pays well they do it? Where is the self respect, the pride of these people? And especially, dont they have any respect for music???
    Basically it means that the London Symphony went into prostitution big time: if some amateur musician who can´t play at all has enough money they will record with him.

  • Stefan says:

    Rich (unskilled or otherwise) amateurs hiring skilled professionals to back them up is nothing new. Think of the sub-par royal performers Bach had to accompany to keep the bills paid. I don’t even think that there is necessarily anything wrong with it. Orchestras are in no position to be turning down sources of income. Activities like this help finance loftier artistic goals.

  • LD says:

    I am stunned and speechless. Back in Poland, I went to the same music school with Anna’s sister (the “accomplished” pianist Kasia)(why does she insist to spell her name Kasha, like she is some breakfast food, I have no idea), and remember Anna as a cherubic 10-year-old. The whole family had no talent but chutzpah like nobody else. They would try to bribe the professors to get the daughters to pass exams. Ha! Yesterday, a friend whom I haven’t seen in years, visited me in NYC. We went through the whole roster of old acquaintances, and when I mentioned the name Karkowska, my friend said, “Just Google her or go straight to YouTube and watch ‘Virtuosity’. I won’t say anything else before you do!”. Good heavens! Somewhere online she is called the Florence Foster Jenkins of violin, and I find it just too brilliant for words. What ignorance do people need to exhibit to believe she is in any positive way special? The butchering of music is one thing, but then the whole packaging (the sisters concept, the outfits, the concert formula, etc.) is one of the most provincial and kitschy things I have seen in a long, long time. Check out their pics on the duo website!

  • Alan Cassar says:

    To LD:
    Today, on Norman’s FB blog, I did say that AK reminded me of Florence Jenkins. I hadn’t read any similar comments, but the comparison seemed to me obvious!