Tuesday, 5 April 2016


Fame. Probably most highly gifted instrumentalists never become famous and remain pretty well unknown. And not all “famous” musicians are top, top, top rank. Fame, or lack of fame, depends on a number of factors. String players, in particular, are often denied a major soloist career because of nerves or stage fright. It is difficult to give of your best if your right hand is subject to trembling; Joseph Szigeti and Jacques Thibaud, to mention only two, often suffered severely from le trac. It does not matter whether or not a conductor suffers from nerves; but it certainly does to a string player. Another factor is backers, sponsors, family, supporters. To get up there and be seen costs either money or influence (usually both). Jascha Heifetz did not stand up in Carnegie Hall in 1917 thanks only to his violinistic prowess. A final factor is cultural milieu; being a genius pianist in somewhere like 1920s Australia would have meant a tough, tough road to stardom and recognition. And, in the end, there are many musicians who just do not want the hassle and strain of trying to build an international maestro career; the first class British violinist Albert Sammons was one such non-candidate for international stardom, as were violinists such as David Nadien, Oscar Shumsky or Joseph Gingold.

When he won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1963, Alexis Michlin was a truly superb violinist. Following that, he pretty well vanished, and even Mr Google has a hard job finding him now (he is rumoured to have become a happy and successful professor of the violin in Oviedo, Spain). Apart from Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh, most lovers of violin playing can list at least a dozen or so other top names. Three real “stars” of the second half of the twentieth century will often be missing from those lists: the names of Josef Suk, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, and Arthur Grumiaux. All three were superb violinists and musicians and came to the fore in the period 1950-70. Suk's reputation was handicapped by being in Czechoslovakia, with limited opportunities for concertising or recording on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Schneiderhan's reputation suffered from being a German musician at a time when anything German was not too popular. Grumiaux's reputation suffered from his dislike of travel and concertising outside a narrow geographical area. None of the three were ever remotely “media figures”. However, anyone seeking out “the best” performance of, say, Beethoven's violin concerto (whatever “the best” might mean) will be safe with Suk, Schneiderhan and Grumiaux, plus a few others.

Many years ago on a visit to New York City in the days when there were still record stores, I was going through the racks of violin recordings when a man came up to me holding a CD. He explained he was buying a CD for someone in his family, and wanted the Paganini caprices. He showed me the CD he had picked; it was Itzhak Perlman's recording. I sorted through the racks and handed him Michael Rabin, telling him it was miles better, in my view. He looked dubious. Didn't recognise the name, but thanked me and took the Rabin CD. A little later, when I was elsewhere, I saw him carefully replace the Rabin CD and head off to the cash desk with: Perlman. Perlman was a known brand, and even appeared on American television. Rabin was an unknown. No one ever got fired for choosing IBM (in those days).

All of which explains why I am often doubtful about choosing a concert or recording by a Big Name. There have been many, many highly gifted musicians over the past 70 years or so, most of whom have always had to live in the shadows. So the press can enthuse over Miss X or Mr Y, but I always prefer to use my own judgement rather than follow the hype. And, no, I am not going to reveal my list of today's and yesterday's “stars” who, in my view, are simply good musicians over-hyped, for one reason or another. Many music lovers will know who they are, or will have their own views.

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