The violinists that really matter

The violinists that really matter


norman lebrecht

October 21, 2018

This might be the easiest, least contentious list of the three:


1 Nathan Milstein

2 Jascha Heifetz

(Heard him once, Jerusalem, 1971)

3 David Oistrakh

4 Ida Haendel


5 Yehudi Menuhin

6 Itzhak Perlman

7 Gidon Kremer

8 Ivry Gitlis

9 Midori

10 Patricia Kopatchinskaya

See also: The pianists that really matter

The maestros that really matter in our lives


  • ben dominitz says:

    A list that lacks in breadth and imagination. Vilde Frang, Augustine Hadelich, Anne Sophie Mutter, Gil Shaham, James Ehnes, Isabel Faust, Jennifer Koh and others.

  • Grüffalo says:

    Gitlis doesn’t matter.

  • RW2013 says:

    What’s next?
    Music critics that really matter?

  • Andy says:

    Are they in order? Almost every violinist of that era that I’ve ever heard speak about these things say that Heifetz was the king. I understand that there is personal preference, but if the vast majority of violinists agree that Heifetz was the most important, I’d go with that.

  • Mercurius Londiniensis says:

    No Grumiaux?

  • Michael Pearson says:

    It’s a bit of fun and I would qualify it by saying ‘in no particular order’ as well as getting Szeryng in there somehow, probably at the expense of Midori or the number 10 here that I don’t yet know well enough.

  • Pedro says:

    The young Vengerov and Mutter definitely.

  • Tamino says:

    These absolutistic headlines recently… How silly and self aggrandizing.
    “The truth about Furtwängler”
    “Violinists that really matter”

    Not a single German in the list. Hahaha, of course…
    Mutter (funny how NL leaves out the most prominent woman in the violin business. But she is German… His hatred for anything German apparently supersedes his acquired attempt at affirmative gender action. Or is it old man’s appetite for sexually attractive women? One doesn’t really know sometimes going by his chosen pictures and topics…)
    Zimmermann, Faust, Tetzlaff, Frang, …
    Kreisler, Joachim…

    • MacroV says:

      The list is of people Norman heard live. He’s not a young man but I’m pretty sure he’s not old enough to have heard Joachim or Kreisler.

    • Szepessy says:

      I think you’ll find Vilde Frang is Norwegian…..

      • Robert Groen says:

        She is and she is damned good. Also good to the point of greatness are Julia Fischer, Janine Jansen and Hilary Hahn. Among the boys there are Franz Peter Zimmermann, Christian Tetzlaff, Herman Krebbers (dec.), Arthur Grumiaux (in my personal top 3) and (remember him?) the great Ruggiero Ricci. Funny, too, that in NL’s slightly Jewish top-heavy list there was no place for Gil Shaham, Maxim Vengerov or Shlomo Mintz….

      • Tamino says:

        I know. My list wasn’t meant to be as mentally limited as the opening title.

  • Yair Kless says:

    what is no.10 doing in this list?

    • Beinisch says:

      You are so right.

    • Beinisch says:

      Yo are so right

    • Clarrieu says:

      Well, she certainly “matters”, since the memory of her butchering the Kreutzer with Fazil Say’s assistance is still haunting me after ten years…

      • hsy says:

        What are you talking about? The way she played it is exactly the way Beethoven intended. PatKop knows she is right because she achieves the same effect as how one contemporary critic described the piece: “aesthetic or artistic terrorism”. If you disagree then you are too blinded by tradition, and you are too bourgeois to appreciate what a free and brave soul PatKop is.

        (Sarcasm if not obvious.)

        She does the same thing to Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. This is her schtick: seek out the worst contemporary review of the piece and play as terribly as she can to match those reviews; then claim her approach is valid, “historically informed”, and true to the composer’s intention.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          She is rather hit and miss, but she is trying to do something with the music, which she hopes people will find interesting. I can well believe Norman has had some very interesting experiences listening to her playing live in the concert hall. (Some others may play “better” technically, but be less interesting, at least to Norman).

          • hsy says:

            If she is trying to do something with the “music”, she would not base her interpretations on the worst contemporary reviews she could find and make her performances sound as awful as those reviews described. She openly admitted this is her approach. I find it completely dishonest and no more than a gimmick. The fact that some of her supporters (not talking about you) insist if you disagree you are either ignorant or reactionary is even more distasteful; a rhetorical trick aimed to deflect any criticisms.

            She should stick to performing new music where there are plenty of works that suit her tediously hysterical style.

  • David says:

    Like them or not, Isaac Stern and Szeryng mattered. A lot.

  • Michael says:

    Of the ones I have seen live, I will say that Maxim Vengerov back in the early 90’s was absolutely electric, but faded from view. Midori I find to have been very overrated. Joshua Bell is the best on a technical level even if the aura wasn’t the same. This would be a harder list to produce as I think there are more names available, but belong on the 2nd tier. I wish I could have heard Menuhin.

    • Szepessy says:

      I can’t agree about Bell being on the same technical level, there are many others who far outstrip him technically and musically e.g. Hahn, Repin, Yang Kavakos, Fischer (can’t understand why hasn’t he been mentioned)

    • Violinist says:

      Joshua Bell is an embarrassment, on any level (especially technical).

  • Tommy says:

    Would it be too much asking for to include some circumstances like; venue and/or year, participating artists and orchestra (if any) and composer/music?
    It would increase readability 1000 times…

  • Fernando says:

    I would 100% add Hilary Hahn.

  • Melanie cello says:

    Three more
    Dmitry Sitkovetsky
    Pinchas Zukermann
    Joshua Bell
    All wonderful musicians!

  • mikhail hallak says:

    Grumiaux is probably an oversight?

  • Mick the knife says:

    A short, short list of live performances would include: Joshua Bell, Joseph Silverstein, Itzhak Perlman, Ray chen

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Christian Tetzlaff

  • Simon Scott says:

    How about Zino Francescatti?

    • Beinisch says:

      He should be in the list instead of Midori

    • Simon Scott says:

      The violinist who had this most fantastic ‘sundrenched’ sound. My all time favourite.
      Mr Lebrecht tells us he once heard Jascha Heifetz. Well,I once heard Zino Francescatti. Who is one step ahead of who?!
      To be more serious,I greatly admire both of these two immortal violinists

  • Anon says:

    How could you leave out Szigeti?
    You disappoint me.

    • aj says:

      szigeti is left out because he wasn’t much of a technician and had to fight his way into the arena
      not being an air head virtuoso,as most violinists
      tend to be.

  • MacroV says:

    Not that I disagree, but interesting to be listing Midori and not such contemporaries as Joshua Bell, Maxim Vengerov, or Christian Tetzlaff.

    Hard to disagree with the top 3, in any case.

    • Not JB says:

      lol Joshua Bell

      • MacroV says:

        Like him or not, he’s arguably the biggest violin star in the business these days. At least in the U.S. I’m not a particularly big fan because of his very conservative repertoire choices – play Tchaikovsky and Bruch everywhere, get a nice check.

  • ira says:

    milstein, my favorite and oistrakh whose american debut i heard. every violinist i could recognize was there including fritz kreisler. if i recall correctly, oistrakh played at 5:30, elman at 2:30 and stern at 8:30.

  • David Teitelbaum says:

    A list that begins– not merely contains–with Nathan Milstein, is a perfect list.

    But I’d argue that someone like Ruggiero Ricci, who was one in his generation who played violinists’ violin music more than anybody, and thereby gave us Paganini, Ernst, Wieniawsky and so many others, beyond the typical repertoire morsels, surely is a top-10 violinist; certainly more so than the out-of-left-field (it’s a baseball term, for you Brits who don’t know,) #10 in this list.

  • Quintus Beckmesser says:

    I would add Kyung Wha Chung in her younger days.

  • David Teitelbaum says:

    Gitlis matters because he put much of the early twentieth century concerto repertoire into the active repertoire with his influential recordings. His musicianship may be controversial (I LOVE his playing in many ways) but his activism early on is more of an influence on today’s violinists.

  • Simon Scott says:

    Here’s a few more:
    Albert Sammons,Alfredo Campoli,Aldo Ferraresi,Vasa Prihoda,Toscha Seidel,Mischa Elman.
    Admittedly,Campoli is the only one of this list who I heard in concert. However,the others recorded in the time when facilities for editing were virtually zero. IMO,these recordings count as some kind of live performances

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Neville Marriner was convinced I’d heard Sammons because of how I had written about him in The Song of Names. I had to prove to Neville that he stopped playing in public about the time I was born.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    Here goes:
    1) Aaron Rosand
    2)Itzhak Perlman
    3) James Ehnes
    4)Gil Shaham
    5) Gidon Kremer
    6)Petr Messiereur
    7) Gerard Poulet
    8) Anne Sophie Mutter
    9) Midori
    10) Hilary Hahn

    • boringfileclerk says:

      Who on earth gave my comments a thumbs down for mentioning Aaron Rosand? The man is a musical genius and is infinitely kind. His art should have been better known had politics not sabotaged his career.

    • MacroV says:

      Oh yes, Aaron Rosand. But remember, the original list is people Norman has heard live. And he may not be among them.

      • Tamino says:

        The title says “…that really matter.”
        not “…whom I heard live.”

        Or does NL think he is God and that’s the same?

        Btw, English is not my mother tongue, but shouldn’t it read “… who really matter.”?

    • aj says:

      Here to-day ,gone to-morrow, they contribute
      nothing to the art

    • aj says:

      They contribute nothing to the art, here to-day
      gone to-morrow.

    • Nick2 says:

      Delighted you mentioned Rosand. I heard him three times during the 1980s and was certain he was then the finest violinist anywhere. Crossing Stern and being a target for the Stern mafia robbed too many from hearing him.

    • aj says:

      Would anyone who loves the violin as an art form
      cross the street to buy a ticket, spend an evening with any of the 10 listed players ..? A more depressing group one cannot imagine .

      • boringfileclerk says:

        Anyone who loves the violin would indeed happily do so. I doubt you even know who numbers 6 and 7 are. Sadly number 6 is no longer among us. Do you even play the instrument?

  • Nick says:

    This is a matter that we have been discussing on LinkedIn for nearly 4 years now, and are into a 4th Volume…and still we have no definitive Top 10 of Violinists…and I don’t think it could ever be without contention!

  • Nick says:

    I would contend that every performing musician REALLY MATTERS…music makes the world a better place

    Care to imagine a world without the likes of this:

    or this

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    The top 3 listed are absolutes.
    Wish you had had the chance to see Isaac Stern in his prime, and Christian Ferras.
    When we discuss the violinists of the past we refer to their power to affect our heartbeat; today people celebrate consistency And accuracy, but before we wanted to be moved, and we were. Spontaneity is magic.

    I cannot help but observe these three lists —conductors, pianists, violinists—so far. 30 musicians listed. Only Leonard Bernstein attended Curtis.

  • Tim Page says:

    Let me try. No order.

    Michael Rabin. Maria Bachmann
    Nathan Milstein
    Henryk Szeryng
    Pinchas Zukerman (but only on viola — always smoothly dull on violin in my live experience)
    Viktoria Mullova
    Gidon Kremer
    Anne-Sophie Mutter

    Heard Stern, Menuhin, Fuchs too late in their careers to glean much of what they were.

  • Ewushka says:

    Where is Camilla Wicks??? I can’t believe that omission…

  • Ms.Melody says:

    I am surprised nobody mentioned Leonid Kogan

    • Paul Carlile says:

      Yes, Kogan; probably best known outside the Soviet Union for brilliant records of Khachaturian & Paganini. I regret i never heard him in concert. I think he didn’t tour so much in Soviet times, priority was given to Oistrakh, and is probably why he doesn’t get a mention here. Obviously a fantastic player with a sort of “animal” relation to his instrument, very exciting at best.

  • NYMike says:

    Accompanied when in various orchestra jobs: Heifetz, Milstein, Gitlis, Stern, Perlman. Heard live: Menuhin, Kremer, Hahn, Ricci to name a few of many others.

  • NYMike says:

    And Kreisler!

  • Bruce says:

    Never had a chance to hear most of my idols live. Of the violinists I have heard live I don’t think there have been 10 who changed my outlook in some way, but here goes with a short list (no particular order):

    • Kyung-Wha Chung (Stravinsky concerto, Tanglewood 1980 or ’81) — intensity like I had never seen — definitely opened my eyes to what a riveting performer can do onstage. She set the bar for “stage presence” very very high.

    • Henryk Szeryng — heard him play the Brahms, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky concerti in 3 different cities in the early-mid 80’s and was amazed at how someone could put forth such glorious streams of sound with such formidable technique, and no emotional content whatsoever. Looking back, I’m sure his playing couldn’t have been as heartless as I remember, but nevertheless that is how I remember it. That was an experience that changed my outlook in some way.

    • Isaac Stern — Mendelssohn, Rochester, 1983 or ’84 — an old man giving a stunning performance of an old warhorse he’d probably been playing for 60 years. Opened my eyes to what an artist can do when he’s communicating the content of the music, even without many tools in his toolbox. (The sound was thin & scratchy as always, and the intonation was not good; but somehow the luminous soul of the music came through.) (I heard him live several times and this was the only time he did anything for me.)

    • Elmar Oliveira — Saint-Saëns #3, Spokane early 1990’s — when he was “on,” it gave you an inkling of what it must have been like to hear one of the fiery old-time virtuosos that everybody says are long extinct.

    • Vadim Gluzman — Tchaikovsky concerto, Spokane approx 2012 — a fiery old-time virtuoso of the kind that everyone says are long extinct.

    Have heard live performances by Perlman, Zukerman, Mintz, Midori, Hadelich, Josefowicz and many others, but it’s always been just a “well, that was nice” experience.

  • Scott says:

    Hilary Hahn is currently the best.

  • Violinist says:

    On a technical level, again referring only to her technique, Hilary Hahn is the best violinist on record. For this feat of athletic (not necessarily music) achievement, I feel she should make the list. Technique is a large part of what we violinists do, and Hilary Hahn, in her Bach and those incredible LIVE performances of the Erlkonig, has exposed us to a level of technical achievement that I know not to be matched. Just my opinion…

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    Midori? Give me a colossal break!

  • Brettermeier says:

    Here I’ll go with

    Viktoria Mullova

  • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Leonidas Kavakos. perhaps? Just a thought…

  • Paul Carlile says:

    A fair enough list! Regret i never heard Heifetz live, but know most of his recordings; unique quality nearly always overbalanced with a gigantic violin dwarfing a distant orchestra or tiny, tinny tinkling piano “accompaniment!” Heard all the others save Midori and PatKop. Milstein- magnificent, Oistrakh- colossal, Ida Haendel- passionate, Perlman- always polished, Kremer-vitally stimulating despite ungrateful dry sound, Gitlis- i didn’t much enjoy, too scratchy, scrapy & squawky, Menuhin- hated his sound & style at first, later totally converted by some unexpectedly sublime Beet, Bach & Mozart.

    As personal favorites who changed my way of thinking musically and violinistically, i’d name Wanda Wilkomirska, (stunning Szymanowski, among others), Josef Suk and Oscar Shumsky- better live than on record.

    Among the current generation, i’ve particularly admired Janine Jansen, Hilary Hahn and Isabelle Faust.

    One disappeared name i regret not hearing is Gioconda de Vito; a truly passionate, “romantic” sound and style, she recorded little but most strikingly.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Well this is harmless fun. Speaking personally, the major problem with constructing such a list of greats and greatest — but only if you heard them play is, did they have to be great when you heard them (which sadly would strike Menuhin off my list, but thankfully, not Milstein who was great one time, and merely wonderful the other two)? The other problem is that I don’t know how much I can or should trust the reactions and memories I have from artists I heard as a youth when creating a “life list” of this sort.

    Francescatti was on his last US tour when I heard him – not quite in his prime, and the Tchaikovsky Concerto was perhaps not his best piece, but still — what a perfect violin posture, and what ease and economy of movement to produce a tone that was impossible to ignore and which no other has even approximated.

    Gitlis in 1967 was a very different phenomenon than what he was to become, and what he has allowed to be perpetuated, and I thought he was marvelous. But even that firebrand performance (unaccompanied Bartok) would take a backseat to Viktor Tretyakov’s Paganini Concerto on his US tour not long after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition. That was violin playing the likes of which I had never heard, and have never heard again. So he’d be on my list but likely not on too many others’. Too rare a bird, and his later recordings suggest the fires cooled.

    Definitely Aaron Rosand. James Ehnes, yes. Perhaps Viktoria Mullova. Chung, Mutter and Kremer were just not at their best when I heard them, but I’d hardly scoff at anyone who’d include them.

    Szeryng got blander each time I heard him but he had plenty of fire the first time, thank heavens. Zuckerman cooled over time as well, but now and then if you’re lucky, you can still hear that greatness intact.

  • Fred says:

    hmm what about Grumiaux indeed and Hirschhorn and Bobesco??????

  • Ole Bohn says:

    To me no 10 definetely doesn’t belong to the list.
    How can Henryk Szeryng be omitted ? I am glad I have heard so many violinists in my life . My list would be different !

    • Simon Scott says:

      Mr Bohn;
      I’m sure that you know the recordings of our teacher,Ernst Glaser,even better than I do. Maybe he should be on the list? Ernst was a fabulous violinist in his day. When I met him towards the end of his life his playing had virtually left him;however,he was still a great musician.

  • AJ says:

    None of them really matter to the history except for Kreisler.

  • John Higgins says:

    Not even a mention of Ginette Neveu so far in the comments! OK, probably no one commenting here heard her play live, but still, she mattered!!

  • Fiddlist says:

    Interesting to see Midori on the list. Many might not agree, but I like that addition. Is it partially because of her education and outreach work, or this is based solely on performances?

  • Victor Trahan says:

    No list would be complete without the great Christian Ferras, but NL hadn’t heard him live.

  • JamesM says:

    Great list, having heard 7 of them live. Can’t argue with Milstein, who was absolutely thrilling in the range of what he could do, the music always ahead of the artist.
    Can I put a vote in for Aaron Rosand? Really superb, and under regarded.

  • Benedict Lea says:

    It’s difficult to list just ten.. Subjective as well, of course, of which I am sure Norman is very well aware. Three who should in my opinion definitely be considered are Szeryng, Grumiaux and Zimmermann

  • Simon Scott says:

    Heimo Haitto–the nordic Ivry Gitlis. He was a Finnish violinist who had a very colourful career indeed. A brilliant violinist who earnt the respect of Jascha Heifetz—-not easy!!!
    I advise reading about him and listening to his utube recordings: a fantastic live Sibelius, Paganini Many things;just enjoy yourselves;you won’t regret it!

  • Byrwec Ellison says:

    I heard Menuhin, Milstein and Perlman live and could only admire Grumiaux and Gitlis from their recordings. But the violinist who made the greatest impression on me, time and time again, for his purity of tone and the beauty of his playing wasn’t a soloist but Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri Quartet.

  • M2N2K says:

    I. Stern, H. Szering, D. Oistrakh, G. Kremer, AS Mutter
    In recordings – Heifetz, Menuhin, Ricci

  • Peneloipe White says:

    No list of violinists is complete without Ginette Neveu

  • CRMH says:

    Of those I have heard live: Shumsky, Menuhin (transcendental solo Bach after disappointing ‘Spring’ sonata); more recently, Mutter, and Ehnes, whose tone and intonation are ideal. On record: Sarasate, Joachim, Kreisler, Heifetz in Bruch Scottish Fantasy x 2, Oistrakh, Sammons in Elgar concerto …

  • Michael Redmond says:

    Henryk Szeryng

  • André Rieu says:

    Is something wrong? I can’t find my name on the list