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Music: The Best Violinists

8 minute read

Time was when violin playing delighted the eye as well as the ear. According to an awed contemporary, the great Italian Virtuoso Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) startled his audiences with eyes “as red as fire” and eyeballs that rolled in agony. The legendary Paganini (1782-1840) was accused of deliberately playing on frayed strings so that when one snapped he could display his virtuosity on three. But times have changed. Last week, in Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall, one of the world’s great violinists walked to the center of the stage, took measure of the audience for a long, silent minute, nodded to his accompanist and swept into Beethoven’s Sonata in C Minor with all the flamboyance of a stockbroker stepping off the 8:13.

Isaac Stern belongs to a breed of violin virtuosos who blend the elegant techniques of past masters with a warm understanding that elevates virtuosity into art. But Stern’s violin (a Guarnerius) still belongs to the breed that Paganini played—and remains a remarkably recalcitrant instrument.* Musicians avoid it so studiously that even major orchestras find it difficult to hire string-section replacements. But Stern and four other greatly gifted players have lifted the solo violin to an eminence any age could envy. Standing with Stern as the world’s finest: Zino Francescatti, David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz.

Stern, Francescatti & Co. have their marked individual differences, but their music reflects what Francescatti calls “the international style”—a welding of the romantic Russian school with the intellectual German and the elegant French. Stern prefers to call this melting-pot style American rather than “international.” and he himself is a prime example. Born in Kreminiecz, Russia, but taken to San Francisco by his parents before he was a year old, he studied with the San Francisco Symphony’s Russian-born and trained Naum Blinder, later listened to recordings of the Austrian Fritz Kreisler and the Belgian Eugène Ysaÿe. What emerged from this combination of influences was a manner of playing that is best described as modified romantic—Slavic ardor and butter-smooth tone, under the taut discipline of a scholarly musical mind.

Violinist Stern soon developed a scholar’s yen for analyzing music and a distaste for studying technique (although an interest in the problems of bowing once led him to study the anatomy of hand and arm and their motor controls). The son of a house painter, Stern made his Manhattan debut at 17 (“I wasn’t the greatest thing since Mozart”), but had to wait seven more years before he was able to start a successful concert career. Now an almost compulsive concertizer, he is rarely in his Manhattan duplex, averages a brain-fogging 125 concerts and recitals a year.

Although he is a masterly performer of Beethoven and Brahms. Stern, 41. is the only topflight violinist who regularly plays the modern masters—Prokofiev, Hindemith, Bartok, Berg. Each performance is a marriage of technique with the temper of the music. “I don’t want to be known only as a violinist,” Stern once said. “I want to be a player of music—one whose instrument just happens to be the violin.” His ambition is snared by his peers:

ZINO FRANCESCATTI, 56, is a lineal musical descendant of Paganini: his Italian-born father, who emigrated to Marseille to become concertmaster of the local symphony, had studied with Paganini’s only pupil. Fritz Kreisler happened to play in Marseille when Francescatti was a boy. and the youngster never got over it. His father wanted him to become a lawyer, but Francescatti had his mind made up; he would be a fiddler. He made a success ful Paris debut in 1925, later toured England with Maurice Ravel and English Soprano Maggie Teyte. He was already a major name in Europe when he made his U.S. debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1939. His sweet and singing tone and his flowing, sinuous style were an immediate success. Francescatti summers at his villa on the Riviera, seldom plays more than three concerts a week when he is touring. “They know me at my best on my records,” says he. “This is what they want to hear, and they are right.”

DAVID OISTRAKH, 53, was already a legend before he briefly left Russia to conquer the U.S. in 1955. Son of a poor Jewish bookkeeper in Odessa, he started playing a one-eighth-sized violin when he was five, supported his family as a wandering fiddler after graduation from the Odessa Conservatory. With his 1935 victory in the Leningrad Concours and a 1937 victory in the first Brussels violin concours, he became the leading violinist of Russia. Western audiences were delighted by his warmth and humor: for all his success, noted a Westerner who traveled with him, he still seemed like a character out of Sholom Aleichem—the little village fiddler who, like one of Aleichem’s wonderful rabbis, had burst beyond the confines of his environment.

A romantic of the old school, Oistrakh favors far slower tempos than most modern violinists, often imbues the music of Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky with the sort of kindling warmth that has reminded many a listener of Oistrakh’s early idol, Fritz Kreisler. Whatever he plays—classics or occasional moderns—Oistrakh exudes conviction. “When the difficult parts come,” says Violinist Francescatti, “he does not try to go around them. In fact, he shows you how difficult they are. He slows down, and this is the honesty of a great artist.”

NATHAN MILSTEIN, 57. another native of Odessa, was a student of famed Hungarian-born Leopold Auer at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where, recalls Milstein, the young Heifetz was already established as “the Prince of Wales of fiddlers.” A post-conservatory concert success in Russia, Milstein left for Paris in 1925, gave concerts with an old Russian friend, Pianist Vladimir Horowitz. It was not until after World War II, when he married and settled down in Manhattan, that he began to build a reputation as something more than an extraordinarily gifted virtuoso. Milstein is still a master of the bravura composers—Max Bruch, Sarasate—but he has found new and interesting things to say about Brahms, Beethoven, Bach. The keynotes of great Milstein performances are their flash and fire. Milstein is willing to take chances—on trip-hammer tempos, flashing colors, amazing fluctuations in volume. His taste as a listener runs to chamber music: symphony concerts, says Violinist Milstein, are “cold excitement, because the man who makes the music—the conductor-doesn’t make the sound.”

JASCHA HEIFETZ, 60, is considered by many of his associates to be the greatest violinist living. Says Oistrakh: “There are many great violinists, but Heifetz, he is in a class by himself.” Ever since Heifetz made his astounding debut in Carnegie Hall when he was 16,* two generations of record listeners have luxuriated in the luscious Heifetz tone, making its creator one of the biggest sellers—1,700,000 albums—in classical-record history. The Heifetz left hand, in its agility and strength, is unsurpassed, and it enables him to play with a fleetness and accuracy that so astounded Arturo Toscanini when he first heard Heifetz that he reported, “I nearly lost my mind.” Heifetz can reduce an audience to tears, and he does so with a surprising economy of effects. He knows the kind of communication be tween stage and audience that Isaac Stern once described: “Standing on the stage alone with only a piece of wood with some strings and horsehair between you and the audience, you have to have the belief that ‘I have something to give you.’ ” The matchless possessor of that belief has been enjoying a semi-vacation from his public for the past six years, spending most of his time in his Beverly Hills home and engaging in occasional chamber-music sessions with his friends Cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and Violinist William Primrose. Next week he will begin teaching master classes (no more than four students) at the University of Southern California. He will also do some recording this year and give a few concerts. But he will never again be a traveling soloist. Says Heifetz: “It requires the nerves of a bullfighter, the vitality of a woman who runs a nightclub, and the concentration of a Buddhist monk.”

* “It is not like the piano, whose tone is kept in tune by the tuner,” Jascha Heifetz once complained. “Playing the violin is all guesswork; you cannot even scratch a mark on the wood so you can tell where to put your fingers to repeat the right note.”

* A performance that called forth a classic exchange. Violinist Mischa Elman: “It’s hot in here.” Pianist Leopold Godowsky: “Not for pianists.”

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