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The “Golden Age” of Violin Playing

The violin’s “Golden Age” period lasted for roughly a hundred years. It can be traced back to the time of Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840) until the moment society started shifting into the age of technology, which has influenced the aesthetic way artists express themselves.

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Manuel Quiroga (1892–1961)

During this period, plenty of other well-known names have contributed immensely to the development of the instrument. Pablo de Sarasate, Fritz Kreisler, and Eugène Ysaÿe are not only known by being some of the greatest performers in the violin’s history but also for their extensive compositional work. One such example can be found in Manuel Quiroga’s 1928 recording where he plays “La Gitana” by Fritz Kreisler.

 

The beginning of the century brought us Jascha Heifetz (one of the first classical musicians to be awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award), Mischa Elman, Nathan Milstein, David Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin, only to name a few.

Taking a look at the current state of the industry, we know that only a small percentage of performers actually manage to achieve stellar careers. Unfortunately, this also means that throughout time many relevant artists were left forgotten under the shadow of the biggest stars.

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Váša Příhoda (1900–1960)

Váša Příhoda was regarded as one of the most prominent names of his time, but unfortunately had his career shadowed, out of jealousy, by star violinists of the time. In this 1956 recording, Příhoda plays one of his own compositions “Slawische Melodie”.

As a classical violinist myself, I’ve been lucky enough to grow up with access to a vast number of recorded material, which allowed me to get in touch with the aesthetics from players that aren’t amongst us anymore. I’ve always admired the way violinists from those days expressed their individuality. This admiration obviously triggered my curiosity for understanding which factors played a role in such clear individuality. A good example of this is Bronislaw Gimpel‘s rendition on Kreisler’s arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Daisies song in this 1956 recording.

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Bronislaw Gimpel (1911–1979)

During the so-called “Golden Age”, players had less access to the whole cornucopia of knowledge and sound within the violin world. Artists were developing their individuality from the start of their education. Instead of being influenced by other visions on a certain composition, they were driven by their own instincts, which many times led to the same piece of music being played in multiple ways.

One of the reasons for such phenomena to occur has actually a pretty simple explanation. Due to the fact that the recording industry was still taking its first steps and recordings were much more expensive to make back then, only the most famous artists were able to record. This also allows us to conclude that most of the performers at the time didn’t have access to recorded material from other players.

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Guila Bustabo (1916–2002)
 
Guila Bustabo had an unfortunate career and dealt with many psychological issues. Toscanini was a big admirer of her playing and contributed greatly for her career, investing a big amount of money together with other musicians (Fritz Kreisler included) into buying her a Guarneri del Gesú, a masterpiece instrument, which you can listen to in this beautiful recording.
 
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Ivry Gitlis (1922-)

Ivry Gitlis is a living legend, known for his peculiar musical choices. At the age of 97, he is still performing. One of his most famous recorded show-pieces has to be this Wieniaswki’s Capriccio-Valse, which can be found in his Portrait recording from 1985.

With the growth of the record industry, artists had to start complying with certain aesthetic norms, which ended up influencing the way artists express their artistry through music.

Violinists active during this period were also very much influenced by the bel canto singing style, which inspired them to express themselves in a way that the listener is more prone to forget the “physicality” of the instrument and focus on the meaning of each note and how each note contributes to a clearer way to deliver their message.

Albert Markov was born at a later period, and even if we can already place him in the Modern Russian School period, it’s still audible in his playing the influences from the “Golden Age”.

 
Art reflects on what is happening in society, and today things are moving faster and faster and more out of touch with our natural pace. I believe violinists of this “Golden Era” were more in touch with the beauty of nature that surrounded them. They took more time between musical phrases but also between concerts.

Artists at the beginning of the 20th century had a less intense concert schedule compared to nowadays. There was more time in between performances, which allowed players to work on their repertoire in a much more thorough way. Also back then soloists could make a living with 20 concerts per year, compared to today, where the average is around 150 performances per season.

We can listen to that when comparing recorded material from the last century but also when attending a live concert.

 

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Michael Rabin (1936–1972)

Michael Rabin has been described as “one of the most talented and tragic violin virtuosi of his generation” (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Rabin). In this recording, his sound is so pure and full of harmonics that at times the recording gives us the feeling of “unhuman” frequencies.

The standardization of technique is also a factor that influences self-expression in different ways. In those days, artists could play in any way they wanted as long as it sounded great and looked reasonable while on stage. Whereas these days, any talented student, with the best possible teacher and publicity can follow a rather typical path of absolute excellence, not allowing much space for rule-breaking or discovery of their own “voice”.

Nevertheless, we should be thankful for all the technological developments in the phonographic industry that allow us to access recordings dating the beginning of the century, thus giving us a glimpse on the differences between the aesthetics of those times and the ones of today.