Is the Waning of ‘Golden-Era’ String Players’ Influence a Bad Thing?

The published works of strings masters represent crucial links in the performance tradition. But the 20th-century golden era may mean little to today's young string players.

By Brian Wise | From the January-February 2022 issue of Strings magazine

Since the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center expanded its digital programming in the spring of 2020, its most consistently popular offering has been Musical Heritage, a series of online panel-and-performance seminars dedicated to the legacies of “golden-era” performers. Episodes focusing on violinist Fritz Kreisler, violist William Primrose, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and the Guarneri String Quartet at times drew far more clicks than livestreams featuring premieres and other newsworthy items.

Jascha Heifetz. Photo: Rijksmuseum

The success of the series isn’t without precedent. Record companies routinely salute the virtuosos of yesteryear with lavish box sets, often marking major anniversaries. Historic performers’ names are attached to fine instruments and music competitions. And a “museum culture” governs classical music in countless other ways, from the dominance of long-deceased composers on orchestra programs to the black-tie performance attire that has changed little since the Victorian age.

David Finckel, co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society, says that the Musical Heritage series was conceived to honor the foundations of modern performance practice. “All of us are born and bred of great players from the past,” he says. “I have to listen to [Jascha] Heifetz and [Vladimir] Horowitz once in a while, and I get a dose of Rostropovich about once a week, just to remind myself of how high the bar can be,” he says. “It’s like going back to a great restaurant and saying, ‘This dish I’ve had, I keep forgetting how great it tastes.’”

Pablo Casals. Photo: George Grantham Bain collection, Library of Congress

Fading Influence

Nostalgia or rigid conservatism aren’t necessarily the main factors at play. The published bowings and fingerings of Heifetz or David Oistrakh represent crucial links in the violin performance tradition. The characteristic vibrato of Mischa Elman or the slides of Nathan Milstein are cornerstones of the Romantic style of playing. But there are also signs that the 20th-century golden era means little to string players now in their teens and 20s, which Finckel regards with some alarm.

“By calling attention to these performers and our relationships with them, we hope to get them a wider audience, especially among young musicians,” he says. He recalls a recent conversation with a Juilliard violin professor whose student had never heard of Heifetz. “Kids don’t listen anymore the way they used to listen,” he says. “This has been verified to me by many, many distinguished teachers at conservatories now. Even with all of the streaming today, kids don’t listen.”

Mstislav Rostropovich. Photo: Vladimir Akimov, Commons: RIA Novosti

Other musicians, including the violinist Daniel Hope, echo this point. “I’m sometimes a little taken aback if I give a master class and I speak to young students who are extremely talented and I say, ‘Do a Thibaud slide,’” Hope says, referring to French violinist Jacques Thibaud. “They look at me like I’m an alien. They have absolutely no idea and it’s only one click away.”


Hope, whose personal mentors included violinist Yehudi Menuhin, admits to a longstanding obsession with “the golden era of fiddle playing,” and he marvels at YouTube discoveries, such as a Soviet television performance of Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy, performed by Leonid Kogan. When learning a piece, he delves into the expressive traditions that surround it, and finds enlightenment in the fingerings of Menuhin or the bowings of Elman.

Fritz Kreisler. Photo: George Grantham Bain collection, Library of Congress

“It’s hard not to be seduced by Heifetz’s slides,” he says, referring to the shimmering, upward portamento found on numerous recordings. “How can you not want to play like that? And yet, nowadays, we are used to being cleaner, more clinical. And the downward slide is something that has completely disappeared.” He alludes to the ways in which Kreisler, Elman, and Menuhin moved downward between notes, in a manner that suggested the vocalisms of Enrico Caruso. “Nowadays if you did that, people would arrest you.”

This interest in the expressive gestures of 50 or 75 years ago suggests a parallel to the renewed taste for mid-century modern design, designer cocktails, or Instagram Polaroid filters. But while retro-chic revivals come with a tinge of playful irony, the schmaltzy slides and vibrato of Kreisler are admired in more straightforward terms. “It’s much harder to play” in that style, says Finckel, who laments that too many young string players perform “without nuance, without expression, without shifts, without vocal imitation, without imagination. The perfect players out there are a dime a dozen, and not one of them will move you to a tear.”

Isaac Stern. Photo: Bogaerts, Rob Anefo

Some younger performers are attuned to historical styles and gently faded repertoire. The 32-year-old violinist Ray Chen has enthused about the insouciant charm required for Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole or the silky dexterity needed for Wieniawski’s First Violin Concerto. Speaking with this writer in 2019, he called Itzhak Perlman possibly the last in a line of people’s virtuosos. “I was always captivated by Perlman and Oistrakh’s playing,” he said. “Kreisler, Milstein, and [Isaac] Stern, as well, had a lot of heart. And that was back in the day when people were far more stoic. Now, people are a lot more emotional.”

Chen, who recorded a 2018 album called The Golden Age, partly blames unimaginative recital programming for the demise of the swashbuckling virtuoso. “Where are the violin recitals? I think programming has to play a huge part with it,” he observes. “It started with this whole approach of putting four sonatas on a program and finishing with Ravel’s Tzigane. That’s not exciting. It just doesn’t sustain.”


David Oistrakh. Photo: Warner Classics/Ken Veeder

Violinist Philippe Quint, who grew up in the Soviet Union listening to smuggled cassette recordings of Heifetz and Rachmaninoff, says that golden-era obsessions are a double-edged sword for him. He laments how the easy charm and warmth of some golden-era performances have given way to a focus on note-perfect objectivity. His own website biography includes a press quote labeling him “a throwback to the glory days of Fritz Kreisler.” In 2010, he released a collection of Kreisler’s Paganini arrangements.

But paradoxically, Quint believes that old recordings can become a psychological burden, their canonic status turning young performers into mimics. “Heifetz is Heifetz. Oistrakh is Oistrakh,” he says of the Soviet violinists. “Leave these guys alone. That’s my message. You can listen to them from afar, from the point of admiration, but too much idolization and copying actually leads to very dangerous and grave results for a lot of players.” 

Jacques Thibaud. Photo: Apeda Studio

Venerating Musical ‘Saints’

Musical giants of the past are especially invoked on the competition circuit. Many contests are named after celebrated virtuosos— including Heifetz, Menuhin, Kreisler, Casals, and Stern—and are rife with historical comparisons, says Lisa McCormick, author of Performing Civility: International Competitions in Classical Music. “Competitors aren’t only compared to each other,” she writes in an e-mail. “They are compared to previous winners in the competition’s history, and all the greats that are in living memory.” This may not be so bad, she says: competitors of every era experience this, and this dialogue with history lends “a grandeur and gravitas” to competitions.

McCormick also points to the central role of anniversary commemorations in classical music. Events like the Beethoven year (despite the pandemic) have kept the focus on the canon and its proponents. Publishing and recording industries gain from these events while contemporary-music specialists are often left out. More than profit-seeking in nature, anniversaries provide opportunities to venerate musical “saints,” writes McCormick, while shaping collective memory.


Mischa Elman. Photo: Herman Mishkin

Finally, when radio stations, streaming services, or specialty magazines attempt to rank the greatest recordings, the towering reputations of the past are often reinforced. Witness how Jacqueline du Pré’s 1965 account of Elgar’s Cello Concerto tops so many best-of lists. In 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, author Tom Moon calls it “a vivid performance by a wild child.” The Penguin Guide to the 1000 Finest Classical Recordings deems it “unsurpassed” while the Rough Guide to Classical Music asserts that “few cellists have penetrated the concerto’s inner recesses so deeply, or produced a performance of such burning intensity.” No wonder why relatively few modern cellists have recorded it themselves.

For Finckel, the weight of Rostropovich’s recordings of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto prompted him to completely rebuild his approach to the piece when given the opportunity to record it in 2003. “Basically, the Dvořák Concerto that I was playing up until that time in my life was the Rostropovich-Dvořák Concerto,” he says. It had “the same timings, the same nuances, the same fingerings. I copied it and it sounded great to me and that was the way the piece was supposed to go. But by 2005 I had really grown up as a musician.”

Nathan Milstein. Photo: Alban Paris, Ringve Music Museum

Not interested in making a knock-off Rostropovich recording, Finckel went back to the source materials. “I started with the score, I started with the manuscript, I learned a lot of things that were in the original manuscript that are not found in editions. And I made my own Dvořák Concerto. The recording came out very well and I’m really proud of it.”

Finckel concedes that there are more idiosyncratic versions on the market, but his stands as a personal win and perhaps a lesson for other musicians confronting the weight of history. “I had been forced to break free from an imitative artistry to one that I could call my own and stand behind.”