My find of Mischa Elman playing Gavotte yesterday helped me realize that I don’t really know who the best violinists in the world are. I have followed some names over the course of my lifetime – Isaac Stern (now deceased), Izhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Janine Jensen – and I’ve also known to appreciate older names like Elman, Heifetz, and Paganini and Kreisler. Since beginning to play again myself, I have learned more about contemporary contenders like Hilary Hahn and Julia Fisher and Anne Sophie Mutter and so on. As my teacher always says, “The good news is that there are so many!”
And of course “who cares” is a good approach. I’m sure any of these greats credit some other list of greats for their being great. On some level they are all in competition with one another, but at this “greatest” level it is not for the first chair of some symphony – it’s really for posterity and, in some cases, for concert ticket sales!
A somewhat arbitrary assemblage of 10 folks common enough in top ten lists:
Kreisler, Paganini, Tartini, Stern, Perlman, Elman, Heifetz, de Sarasate, Midori Goto and Anne Sophie Mutter.
I confess to choosing the last two – both women – from amongst many possibilities. Of course there are no women in the storied lists that include the older masters – prior to the 1970s especially, women had extreme roadblocks preventing their achievement at those heights. But I picked two who I think might land on the lists one day!
Also, I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to have the 20th century onward so well-represented (only two on the list did not see the 20th century – Paganini and Tartini). Look at how far humanity came in other pursuits during the 20th century – the four minute mile, general relativity, broadcasting, space travel – I think it was one of those zeitgeist centuries. Being able to record and listen to ourselves is, to my mind, no small matter when it comes to self-reflection and improvement! For those nostalgic folks who like to imagine that everything was better in the past at least they can take comfort in the fact that we have yet to best the string instruments of the golden age of Italy!
Competition, to my mind, is only useful if it’s pushing humanity to be its best. Humanity, for whatever else it can do, sure makes strings vibrate pretty.
Thanks for reading.