Where are the Big Beast violinists?

Where are the Big Beast violinists?


norman lebrecht

September 15, 2011

In the October issue of The Strad magazine, out today, I reflect upon the aftershocks of the Gidon Kremer letter

and ask why it is that no violinist today enjoys genuine world fame. Here’s the conundrum:

Try a simple test. Ask your neighbour, newsagent, nursery teacher or neurosurgeon to name a famous violinist. Paganini, Menuhin, or Kreisler, they’ll say. Then ask for a living soloist. In England, one of them might say Nigel Kennedy, in America Joshua Bell, in Germany Anne-Sophie Mutter, in Estonia Gidon Kremer. But that’s it. There is no string player today who commands the global reach of past masters. 

Now why is that? Nothing to do with how they play. Note for note, Alina Ibragimova and Gil Shaham can hold their own with any legend in the archive, so why aren’t they better known? Milstein, in his eighties, told me that he could never play as fast as the current crop, no could he put a finger on what it was that made them less imposing. 

The truly worrying thing for Strad readers is that this image decline affects only string players. Lang Lang, Helene Grimaud, Kissin and Richard Clayderman are recognised wherever they go. Anna Netrebko is no less famous than Callas. Domingo is a household name. No drawer of bow across bridge can match their celebrity.

Now why is that? Your thoughts please.

This will be my last conversation in The Strad for the time being. My time has got too tight, and the magazine is taking a slight shift of editorial focus. It has been great fun talking straight to the stringies. I’ll probably do it again some time.



  • Jude Ziliak says:

    Hi Norman,
    Perhaps you’re forgetting Yo Yo Ma, who does indeed command global celebrity?

  • Emil Archambault says:

    Maybe because there are too many similar violinists? I mean, there’s Hahn, and Fischer, and Josefowicz, and Benedetti, and Jansen, and Faust (Isabelle), etc. They’re all young, pretty violinists; how could we separate one from the others?

  • Doug says:

    You want your answer?

    Everyone is drunk on the tasty poisons of marketing, money, sex, power and fame.

    Music to them is just a mean to achieve all of the above.

  • ariel says:

    Boy ! are you wrong …note for note they can’t hold their own…and unless you have a tin ear you know it .
    Having heard live Elman, Heifetz ,Milstein,Oistrakh.,Kogan,Francescatti , Neveu,Thibaud, Parlow,Mehuin in good and poor state ,and Szigeti wobbliong into old age , the fiddle gang to-day cannot note for note hold their own,
    unless you mean just finger placement . The answer is so obvious you must be setting this up just for fun.
    Lang Lang in the same article as Heifetz … c’mon you’re joking. As for Kreisler that was a musical love
    affair..we cringed sometimes and waited for him to get into his stride and when he did he had us hooked .
    That alone should answer the question ………

  • alexandra says:

    I cannot believe you could name Alina Ibragimova, Norman. Seriously? The problem is that no one has a voice anymore, a DNA in their playing. The great fiddlers had such a distinct signature to their voices that you instantly knew, that’s Heifetz, Milstein, Oistrakh. It’s akin to recognizing Sinatra, Lena Horn, Chet Baker.

    Turn on the radio today and ask yourself, who is playing this concerto? It’s an epidemic that stretches beyond classical and into mainstream music as well: homogeneity.

    And let’s be clear. Zukerman is the only Beast left.

  • Robert says:

    I am not sure I fully agree. I do not think that Bell and Kennedy, for example, are less recognizable than Grimaud or Kissin. Lang Lang really stands out because he is a big talent with perhaps an even bigger charismatic personality and an easy name to remember. Those do not come along that frequently for any instrument.

    • ariel says:

      Lang Lang stands out because he is” designed ” to be a crowd pleaser, music is just a vehicle for him to
      fulfill his inner needs whatever they may be and the record co . promoting him sees only$$$$ in keeping
      him on , that is what they are about . He appeals mostly to the musically ignorant .
      I do believe he thinks himself the great pianist Lang Lang .

      • Robert says:

        I think it is hard to judge musicians who are flamboyant. Bernstein was once said to be showy and shallow, but he outlived that reputation. I admire a lot of what Lang Lang does and am amused by other things he does. One thing for sure, he is bringing classical music to a much wider audience that otherwise would not be listening at all. I live in China and western classical music performances are vibrant with growing attendance.

        But back to violinists, no one seemed to mention Perlman. Certainly a big name and draw.

  • Stefan says:

    I must disagree with the premise of this argument. I don’t believe that the average neighbour, newsagent, nursery teacher or neurosurgeon (at least in North America) would come up with Paganini, Menuhin, Kreisler or even Anne Sofie Mutter or Gidon Kremer. They may have, 50 years ago, when the general level of awareness of classical music was perhaps higher, but not now. The only classical artists that the general public might immediately be able to name offhand today are Yo-Yo Ma and Luciano Pavarotti – and only because they’ve been on television so much that they have become ubiquitous. And Yo-Yo only because he has a funny name and played at the latest Presidential Inauguration, and Pavarotti because he was funny-looking and parodied on Saturday Night Live. As for Lang Lang – has he been on the Tonight Show? If yes, he stands a chance at being recognized on the street. And let’s not forget whoever is the latest ‘popera’ star to appear on American Idol – is that Jackie Evancho this week? They certainly also command a certain amount of public recognition, but they’re hardly classical musicians.

    Classical music has gone so far to the fringes of our culture that even highly educated people have a decidedly fuzzy knowledge of it. Not long ago, I encountered someone with a PhD in the sciences who had never heard of Philip Glass. I don’t think that’s even particularly unusual. Basic knowledge about classical music is totally absent from today’s education systems.

    • ariel says:

      Stefan – right on the mark correct – last night I heard a college student admit not knowing Canada bordered the US – and to expect this “average” American to know of Menuhin would indeed be more than amazing .
      It is not that so called classical music is at the fringes ,most anything that requires one to” aspire to” is sent off to
      the fringes -most people here are not educated (cultured ) they are trained for specialties. Once at a dinner I sat
      next to a celebrated musician from that most famous of music machine shop training school and commented
      how the performance reminded me a little of a famous past artist x ,only to get a blank stare and a who is that ?The celebrated player is teaching to-day and one can only imagine what sort of teaching.
      ” Highly educated ” people to-day are in reality “highly trained ” – education in the sense of being a
      cultivated being has long gone . It’s country music as in “How can I miss you if you won;t go away ” that rules.

  • chris says:

    For Violinists-of-global-renown, one must not forget Itzhak Perlman, of Schindler’s List, Obama’s Inauguration and Memoirs of a Geisha fame!

    • ariel says:

      Schindler’s List ????? — C’mon spare us the second rate drivel
      . Yes Perlman is world famous but he will never enter the pantheon of great artists
      he just ain’t got it for all his facility ,and he certainly could knock it out at one time. He will always be the bridesmaid to the great players and as time goes on will be just a footnote in the history of violin players.No mention of Perlman? answers the question …he doesn’t come to mind in the same way that Heifetz
      or Kreisler did .when one spoke of great violinists and why he doesn’t is plain and simple .

  • Charles Hoff says:

    No mention of Itshak Perlman? He’s the first to come to mind.

  • After reading about Nigel Kennedy’s comments on Bach performance I decided to perform a little experiment by comparing his and a lot of other performances of Bach on solo violin. It was quite illuminating. Bach is a very good test of any musician’s technical competence and musical understanding. The interesting thing was that the violinist that I stumbled across in this survey–one I had not previously heard of–was the Hungarian violinist Kristof Barati. Wow, wonderful musician. I think my feeling about most of the current crop is that while they are technical wizards, they often show only modest musical understanding. Not their fault, probably, as the pressures of the business these days seem to be such that you have to look like a supermodel to even get your foot in the door. If you want to read my “comparative Bach survey” go to my blog:


  • ariel says:

    Your slamming of Kennedy (if it is Kennedy ? ) and Menuhin speaks volumes of bias , Barati for those of us who follow the world of violin playing has been around a while and falls into the same class of playing as Hahn .
    perhaps a little more poetic at times .Neither will ever be Big Beast house hold names.
    Your survey is terribly flawed but interesting .