The violinists who define an era

The violinists who define an era

Album Of The Week

norman lebrecht

July 28, 2023

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

Every era has its defining violinist. For the second half of the 19th century it was the avuncular Joseph Joachim, for the first third of the 20th the mischievous Fritz Kreisler. Then came Heifetz, Menuhin, Perlman, briefly Vengerov and Anne-Sophie Mutter. If there is a defining violinist in the present century I suspect it is Hilary Hahn.

American to her pop-socks, forged from age ten in the Curtis foundry, she has hardly put a career foot wrong…

Read on here.

In Czech here.

In The Critic here.


  • Scott fruehwald says:

    I couldn’t agree more. You should have heard her do solo Bach at David Geffen Hall last March. She held the crowd enthralled.

  • NYMike says:

    Grouping Heifetz with the others (fine as they were) in the last half of the 20th century is ludicrous. He’s still considered one of history’s two or three greatest violinists.

  • Mystic Chord says:

    Hilary Hahn is a force of nature for sure but why is it so difficult to see her in the UK? I can’t see any scheduled performances …

    I actually think that there is a better pool of world class female violinists than male right now. I saw María Dueñas the other week and she has what it takes to be a contender too …

  • Andy says:

    She is a wonderful musician, and from every interview / documentary I’ve seen, a classy and engaging person. Any chance you get to hear her play (or speak) should be taken. Chapeau.

  • Pedro says:

    Janine Jansen is also phenomenal. A splendid Sibelius concerto early this in Paris.

  • Christopher Storey says:

    Yet more hyperbole from NL . What about Zuckerman , Bell, Kyung Wha Chung, Ehnes , Jansen , Kavakos , Kennedy ( even though he may be an acquired taste ) , Mutter , Gil Shaham , not to mention the lovely Tasmin Little in her rather specialised repertoire. By comparison with any of these , Hilary Hahn is rather anodyne

  • Guest says:

    This opens up a very interesting discussion.
    I really love Hilary Hahn and the sincerity of her violin playing.
    But when it comes to „defining“,
    I think it‘s Hadelich who is going to stay. Any other names thrown into the ring?

  • Lindsay says:

    Hilary Hahn is a delight! She commissions great repertoire for the violin and plays it spectacularly! I suspect she’s perfectly equipped to write violin music herself!

  • Not AI says:

    Too bad she plays like a robot, although she’s becoming less rigid with the years. Personally I prefer Jansen and Frang

  • Micaela Bonetti says:

    “Briefly” Vengerov?

  • K says:

    Hahn is great, but the amount of superlatives? Janine Jansen and Vengerov have distinct sounds in this generation as well.

  • Michael de Navarro says:

    What about Alina Ibragimova?

  • Ed says:

    Remember Arthur Grumiaux and Henryk Szeryng ?

  • Guest says:

    I doubt HH will appreciate your use of that particular photo.

  • steve says:

    Augustin Hadelich….Leonidas Kavakos….Julia Fischer….Lisa Batiashvilli….all defining violinists as well

    • Carl says:

      Yes, but Hahn has more than just fine playing. She’s built an actual fan base and shown herself to have a real public personality outside of classical circles (via social/regular media, crossover, youtube comedy, outreach projects, etc.). I don’t think I’ve ever even seen an interview with Kavakos or Fischer, let alone a social post. In 2023 that doesn’t cut it.

  • A retired musician says:

    She used to be one of my favorite violinists. I never forget her fantastic recordings of Barber, Mendelssohn, Shosty #1, Stravinsky or even Brahms from 90s and early 2000s. Extremely precise and solid playing with a unique tone and style.
    Around 10 years ago she gradually started playing rougher, slower and pretty much with predictable phrasings. Historians can remember this new phase as her Strad model Vuillaume era. The last two times I heard her live was a complete disappointment. The most boring and slowest Tchaikovsky and Carmen Fantasy (Sarasate) one can imagine.
    Still, I moved forward and bought her last Ysaye recording to see if it can change my mind. Really liked the interpretation of the First sonata. The other five…Meh.
    Thanks Hilary for all the great memories from your “il Cannone” era. You are still the best violin technician in my book.

    Best wishes

    • Emil says:

      For what it’s worth, her Brahms on tour with the Philharmonique de Radio France last April was anything but slow or predictable.

  • HORIA says:

    Where are D. Oistrakh, L. Kogan, Szeryng, Grumiaux, Francescatti, Ricci and so many others?!… By the way, Menuhin is highly overrated… You may skip him anytime…

  • David K. Nelson says:

    It makes a nice conceit for the purposes of a review but it is anything but accurate to say that any era, much less EVERY era, is defined by one isolated violinist. Or perhaps I should say, those with a particular interest in the violin find it hard to go along with this notion. Every violinist named had, or has, rivals/ counterparts/ colleagues. Many preferred them. In his own time Joachim was revered in England and Germany, primarily Berlin. But Sarasate toured more widely and purely as a violinist was regarded as unequaled. Kreisler’s time overlapped that of Kubelik, Ysaÿe, Szigeti, Elman, Flesch, Thibaud, Enescu, Huberman, Heifetz, the young Menuhin, and a host of others who each had their claim to being tops in one way or another.

    I would never pass up a chance to hear Hillary Hahn but there are other great violinists who are, I think, her equal.

  • Pr. Bagration says:

    She recorded Ysaye, hardly an era-defining decision . Calm down, Norman.

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    Ah, yes, Ms Hahn.

    Anyone heard her play a Beethoven or Brahms sonata? How about chamber music?

    Sure, she can play the warhorses in tune. If I could hear her Brahms G Major or Beethoven No. 10, or a Schubert piano trio, then I might have a better idea. One-dimensional players avoid chamber music.

    One thing I do find refreshing, ironically, is that I always know how she’ll sound.

    • Bill says:

      She did a tour with the Poulenc Trio some years ago. I agree it isn’t a big part of her shtick. Not a big fan of her playing, myself, but I can’t complain about the accuracy. Seems like she is able to play every note just how she wants it, but the result often just doesn’t hold my attention.

    • Larry W says:

      Another misinformed comment. You may begin with listening to Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata on YouTube. There are Mozart and Ives sonatas on CD. The recorded Bach double concerti and works with voice have all the elements of chamber music, as do virtually all of the violin concerti that Hilary or anyone else has performed and recorded. Even at age 12, when I taught and played chamber music with her, she was totally committed to absorbing as much as possible and playing at the highest level.

      • Gerry Feinsteen says:

        Welcome to the conversation, Larry.
        We appreciate knowing your bias comes from being one of the few musicians to have played chamber music with her.
        Surely she enjoyed the experience enough to start her own chamber music festival and make recordings of the great chamber works….
        Well, not yet. She’s busy playing the big pieces, allowing her musical subtlety to remain subtle; she has the dynamics of a radio: louder and softer with the same quantifiable intensity.

        I did manage to find a clip of the Kreutzer in rehearsal. It is solid. But my ears are not biased, and thus I’m not mesmerized by hearing a piece sound more like an instrumental showpiece than a musical novel. Reading two reviews of the Wigmore concert, it was clear the ‘instrumental’ aspects are her strength.
        You might consider hearing great artists playing Beethoven sonatas: Pinchas Zukerman, Isabelle Faust, Gidon Kremer, Fritz Kreisler, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Frank-Peter Zimmermann, Josef Suk, among countless others. Listening to these recordings for a few days will provide your heart with a musical education.

        Be careful, however, you just might return to your aural hometown and be disappointed to discover her factories aren’t so glamorous after all.

  • Micaela Bonetti says:

    In the past: Michael Rabin. Franco Gulli. Christian Ferras.
    Today: Maxim Vengerov. Augustin Hadelich.
    I bow to these musicians.

  • Herr Forkenspoon says:

    There’s no question about her playing the Ysaye. I don’t like the way the recorded sound bounces from ear to ear in my headphones. That’s not how music is heard. I think you left out the Oistrachs and to say that Anna Sophie Mutter was “briefly” a defining violinist should have an asterisk after it and referred to as an opinion.

    • Sidelius says:

      Hilary belongs on the A list, but that hardly means she IS the A list. At this time, there are surely 40 or 50 violinists who can deliver a jaw-dropping performance of any of the usual warhorses, be it Dvorak, Elgar, Bartok, or whoever. It is ultra competitive. Fine as she is, she is not a class apart. For your premise to be valid, you would need to establish that there is a wide consensus among the critical community and the violin community that she is singularly, uniquely talented. If you were to canvass, say, 500 music critics and 500 eminent violinists, I believe you would find no such overwhelming consensus. You probably would find it difficult to even get agreement on the best version of any single concerto. Every soloist does better with certain composers and styles than others. Nothing is that simple. One might be a better technician, but another a better musician. One might have an astonishing tonal pallette, while another is a study in beige. There are endless variables. To declare Hilary Numero Uno is faintly demeaning to the many other stars of the instrument, such as Midori, Sarah Chang, Lisa Batiashvilli, Baiba Skride, Rachel Barton Pine, Joshua Bell, Pamela Frank, Frank-Peter Zimmerman, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and many others, some mentioned by other writers here. I would even put some of these above Hilary, but so much depends on how closely you listen. I would say listen wider, give more violinists your attention. Don’t fall for record company hype. Open your ears. It’s worth it.

      • RBP's former fan says:

        You have good points Mr. Sibelius but the fact that you include mediocre violinists such as Rachel Barton or Joshua Bell in your list who cannot play a single movement of any concerto or Sonata in Tune tells us a lot about your listening ability… I’m glad you didn’t include Anne Akiko!
        It’s a sin to put FPZ, Lisa or Baiba’s name next to these overrated players. I miss hearing the teenager Midori.

        • Sidelius says:

          I must have missed those recordings. I find Bell’s playing to be naturally expressive, in any case, at least the recordings I’ve heard.

  • Music Lover says:

    I’ve always found her Mendelssohn Concerto to be like a brilliant mechanical clock. Let me put in a vote for James Ehnes.

  • Joe Green says:

    No, Norman. No….

  • Robert Levine says:

    Any commentary about great violinists that doesn’t put Zukerman at, or very near, the top simply isn’t serious. I doubt there’s been a violinist since Heifetz that’s more admired by string players.

    But Hilary is a great player and wonderful musician; no question at all.

  • Q says:

    I don’t know if her violin playing is era defining. But her clickbaiting is definitely era defining

  • Peggy says:

    Why would you use the photo of exhausted Hilary crying in the airport when she was unable to get to a performance?