The Greatest of Violinists

It’s the instrument that inspired solo masterpieces from Bach to Bartók, that leads the way in chamber groups and symphony orchestras, that is equally at home in gypsy, klezmer and jazz groups alike. Just where would music be without the wonderful violin?

And in the right hands, few instruments can match the violin for displays of thrilling virtuosity, for expressing the full gamut of human emotions and for sheer beauty of sound. As a result, few instrumentalists have had quite the same legendary status as enjoyed by the greatest violinists. In fact, stories concerning the violin and those who play it have sometimes gone beyond the realms of reality – for instance, at his prime in the 1820s, Niccolò Paganini was believed by some to made a pact with the devil himself.

We asked 100 of today’s best players to tell us the violinists who have inspired them most. Each had three choices, with the stipulation that they must have heard them either on disc or live. We totted up the results to produce the following Top 20 of the greatest violinists of the recorded era…

George Enescu

(1881-1955) Romanian

George Enescu was a prodigiously gifted musician whose celebrity was limited by his own modesty and dislike of showmanship for its own sake. Not only a violinist, he was Romania’s leading composer, a distinguished conductor and a teacher whose pupils included Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux, Ivry Gitlis, Christian Ferras and Ida Haendel. From the age of four he studied violin with the gypsy player Lae Chioru and made his first public appearance, aged eight, as a violinist in 1889. Enescu then studied composition and violin at the Paris Conservatoire, supplementing his official violin lessons with the Paris-based Cuban violinist José White. He toured widely as a violinist (both as a solo and chamber musician) and conductor, but regarded his chief vocation as a composer. His unshowily pristine and song-like violin playing is preserved in the few recordings he made in the US during the 1920s, and his 1940s recordings of Bach’s Solo Sonatas
and Partitas.