The violin’s long history, going back five centuries, as well as its musical versatility, are two major challenges when trying to come up with a selection of the best violinists of all time.
In the end, the selection of the players on this list is dependent to some extent on personal taste, although there are undoubtedly several artists who everyone can agree had a significant influence on developing new styles of playing or producing unique brilliance in their performance or recording.
Here are ten of the best from past and present.
While we have no recordings to prove his virtuoso abilities, accounts of his playing, and his musical arrangements put him among the very best violinists of all time. Along with his remarkable technical skills and his ability to convey emotion through his playing, his music also influenced a number of composers who followed him, including Robert Schumann, Liszt and Brahms.
Pablo de Sarasate
Beginning to play at the age of five and giving his first public concert at eight, de Sarasate won broad recognition as a virtuoso. He won the Paris conservatory’s highest honour at aged 17 and was largely responsible for popularising Spanish music among some of the leading composer’s of the late 19th century. Considering that he was born in 1844, it is remarkable that we do have audio recordings of his work. Here he is in a recording from 1904.
Kreisler was a prodigy who was accepted by the Paris conservatory at the age of seven and won its most prestigious prize at the age of twelve. He was one of the first violinists to achieve international fame through the gramophone, and also his many tours. He was considered one of the last violinists of the romantic era. Here he performs Beethoven’s violin sonata no 1.
Huberman is probably best known for his founding of the Palestine Orchestra which helped save Jews from the Holocaust. But prior to this, he had established a reputation of one of the best violinists of his time. He performed throughout Europe from a young age, even performing Brahms’ violin concerto in front of the composer and receiving an impressed response. In this recording from 1925, Huberman plays Beethoven’s violin sonata no 9.
Heifetz is seen by many as the greatest talent on the violin since the beginning of the recording age. From his earliest public performance at the age of five, to his lengthy career in the US where he relocated later, he made an impact with his masterful technique and arrangements for violin. He also made a significant contribution to teaching in his later years. Here he is playing Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto in D major
Menuhin’s natural ability to make music produced some of the most memorable recordings of violin works. His contract with the EMI label is believed to be the longest running in the history of recorded music. This is his famous recording of Elgar’s violin concerto, conducted by Elgar himself in 1932.
Perlman was another early starter, giving his first concert at ten and playing to a live US television audience when he was thirteen. His refined approach to playing and his enthusiasm have both been prominent features in his career. He has also emerged as a conductor and important teacher, with a position at the Juiliard School in New York where he studied himself. Here he plays Tartini.
After a four decade career, Zukerman continues to tour widely around the world. His passion for music and brilliant playing technique has made him one of the most respected contemporary musicians and has inspired the young people who he has tutored through his music programmes. As well as violin, Zukerman also plays viola and has established his reputation as a conductor. Here he plays Brahms’ violin concerto in D major.
She began her career by winning two major music contests: the Sibelius competition in Helsinki in 1980 and the Tchaikovsky gold medal in 1982. She is renowned for her recordings of Bach, which have received exceptional reviews internationally, and more recently she has experimented with other, more contemporary styles. Here she performs Bach’s violin sonata in G minor.
Known as “the grandfather of jazz violinists”, Stéphane Grappelli formed the famous Quintet of the Hot Club of France with guitarist Django Reinhardt in the 1930s. They were the first European musicians to directly influence what was in their heyday a completely American-based genre. Both as a soloist and an ensemble player, he was a model of graciousness as well as skill. In the words of Yehudi Menuhin, who first recorded with him in 1972, “What a happy man he was himself. . . . He played the violin as a bird flies, his inspiration never failing him.” Stephane Grappelli was, and will forever be, one of the greats.
Do you agree with our selection or do you think some great has been missed out?