It's always a temptation to bemoan the passing of the good old days, how there are no novelists like Tolstoy or painters like Leonardo around today. Especially in the performing arts, the temptation is to call up memories of days gone by.
After the recent death of noted violinist Isaac Stern, called "one of the last great string players of his generation" by The Associated Press, many observers saw the end of an era. Although Stern's generation of major violin talents still has survivors, notably the much-praised Ruggero Ricci and Ida Haendel, the point seems well-taken. The generation of superstars just behind them, including Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, seems bogged down by fame, tediously repeating the same limited repertory.
Can the famed group of mighty violinists who have died over the past 15 years, including Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, and Yehudi Menuhin, be replaced?
Says distinguished violinist and teacher Aaron Rosand, "Personal style cannot be taught. Taste can be cultivated with time and life's experience. What set Heifetz, Milstein, and [David] Oistrakh apart was the combination of superb musicianship, extraordinary technical mastery, and a very distinctive sound. Two bars of a recording immediately identified the artist."
All of the old-time string masters usually enjoyed the career-long loyalty of a record company, such as Menuhin with EMI, Heifetz with BMG, and Stern with Sony.
Today's younger generation of musicians, however talented, is far from experiencing that security.
A case in point is the splendid Taiwan-born American virtuoso Cho-Liang Lin, who at 41 is at his peak as a performer with a long list of widely praised recordings for Sony of varied repertory, including concertos by Sibelius, Nielsen, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev (see box below).
But Sony has dropped Mr. Lin (along with many other fine artists), perhaps in part because Lin feels more comfortable with major works of music, instead of the currently fashionable dumbed-down crossover glitz.
Fortunately, a small but ambitious Finnish record label, Ondine, has asked Lin to record America composer Christopher Rouse's new violin concerto, written expressly for Lin and premièred last May with the New York Philharmonic.
Lin is by no means alone among supremely talented violinists whose recordings are not being released as abundantly as they deserve. German violinist Christian Tetzlaff has won acclaim for his performances of composers from Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms - to moderns such as Berg, Ligeti, and Stravinsky. Many feel that his rendition of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin are the most achingly pure since the legendary Arthur Grumiaux's. Yet Mr. Tetzlaff's inspiring recordings on Virgin are either not released in America (making them hard-to-find imports here) or else packaged in easily overlooked midprice series.
Happily, next year Tetzlaff is scheduled to record the Brahms violin sonatas and Sibelius Violin Concerto. But the question remains: Why don't record companies support their most talented artists anymore?
Record companies are "trying to reach a younger audience of record buyers," Mr. Rosand says.
"To me, it is an oddity that very young players, just beginning their careers, are recording works such as the Beethoven and Brahms concertos and unaccompanied Bach, works I wouldn't have dreamt of recording until I was 50 years old, as they wouldn't have been definitive before then.... Everything is on a short-term basis of what is currently in vogue."
Traditionally, the violin represented the cultural ideals and aspirations of a century of East Europeans, many of them Jewish, a way of escaping poverty and the ghetto. Russian-born Mischa Elman, for example, had to obtain special dispensation as a Jew in order to live in turn-of-the-20th-century St. Petersburg, Russia, and study with the great teacher Leopold Auer.
Child prodigies like Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin were held up as examples by Jewish mothers to offspring who might be unwilling to practice.
"The violin in an immigrant Jewish family was a calling card," Rosand says. "If a player became successful, doors opened. As the years went by, it mattered less what your religion or background was."
Rosand sees a similarity in today's crowd of overachieving Asian and Asian-American violinists: "There are so many talented young Korean players, and Koreans see [mastery of the violin] as a new identity or calling card; if they achieve their goals as an artist, then they become an artist, first and foremost.
"Korean mothers and fathers are like Jewish mothers and fathers of yesteryear. I see it at the Curtis Institute [of Music in Philadelphia], where the enormous numbers of Asian students is remarkable, and they're good players. They have the hands and the intelligence."
One emphatic success is an erstwhile child prodigy, the Korean-American Sarah Chang, who debuted with the New York Philharmonic at the tender age of 8 and has survived to produce a series of recordings for EMI marked by eloquence and restraint.
Earlier violin recitals would contain virtuoso pieces chosen to best suit a given artist, rather than the more sobersided concerts of more serious works offered today.
In her appealing EMI disc "Simply Sarah," Ms. Chang, now 20, hearkens back to an earlier age of style and taste in what highbrows might consider bonbons by Paganini and Bazzini.
Another young talent, Siberian-born Vadim Repin, also expresses this lightness and grace in the disc "Tutta Bravura" (Erato). Unlike some colleagues, who plow through classics and lollipops alike with mechanical affectedness or lumbering portentousness, both Chang and Mr. Repin manage to convey joy in their labors. They possess the dexterity to create mere glitz, but manage to do something more heartwarming, expressing affection for a legacy of violin tradition.
With the old players mostly gone, some listeners are convinced we shall never hear their like again. The majestic violist and conductor Rudolf Barshai says he believes that Stern was the last of a famous series, and adds, "I have not heard or found a replacement for these violin players to date."
Although perhaps not replacements, splendid talents such as Lin, Tetzlaff, Chang, and Repin are more than mere consolations. They are vibrant affirmation of a living tradition, and evidence that we may indeed be living in a golden age of violin playing, if only we listened to it and recorded it more carefully.
Soaring poetic inspiration in a wide repertory.
Sibelius and Nielsen Violin Concertos (Sony MK 44548 )
Poulenc, Ravel, Debussy Sonatas (Sony SK 66839)
Stravinsky and Prokofiev Violin Concertos (Sony SK 53969)
Achingly pure and precise playing that combines head and heart.
Bach, Solo Sonatas and Partitas (Virgin Classics 724354508929)
Mozart Violin Concertos (Virgin Classics 7243545214 23)
Janácek, Debussy, Ravel, Nielsen Sonatas (Virgin Classics 724354512223)
Graceful virtuosity with admirable restraint.
Goldmark Violin Concerto (EMI 72435569552)
Strauss Violin Concerto and Sonata (EMI 724355687029)
Simply Sarah: Popular Encores (EMI 724355616128)
Stalwart, open-hearted, and unaffected readings of challenging works.
Prokofiev Sonatas (Erato 0630106982)
Shostakovich and Prokofiev Concertos (Erato 0630106962)
Tutta Bravura (Erato 3984254872)