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Laurie Niles's 2010 guide to holiday gifts for violinists

December 6, 2010 at 3:42 AM

Once again, the holidays have arrived, and the gift-giving season is upon us. Here I have assembled a list of some of this year's finest offerings from violinists, including recordings, DVDs and some sheet music. Please feel free to add to this list in the comment section!

Why should you consider giving – or asking for – a music-related gift? For one, it will help keep you inspired about your violin-related endeavors, to hear a beautiful recording, to receive tickets to an inspiring concert, to have new sheet music, to receive useful equipment, etc. Your friends and relatives might look to you as being the "expert" on classical music, and the gift of something like a recommended recording from you just might help another person start on the path toward appreciating classical music.

Also, you are supporting musicians and keeping music stores afloat when you buy recordings and other music-related things. Even if you don't see anything that excites you on this list, I hope it helps you think about the idea of asking for a music-related gift or giving a music-related gift: attending a concert, buying a CD from a local musician, asking for a musical gadget, instrument, sheet music you've always wanted, donating to an arts organization, etc. (To that end, a portion of each purchase made after following any links below which go to will support

Julia Fischer: Paganini: 24 Caprices
Julia Fischer plays the 24 Caprices with exquisite control and musicality, with a nice dash of daring to keep perfection from sounding like sterility. This CD was just nominated for a Grammy for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance. You can also read our interview with Julia from October in which she talks about Paganini.


James Ehnes and the Philharmonia Orchestra with Vladimir Ashkenazy: Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Octet
It's out! And what a clean and easy ride it is through this well-loved violin concerto, with Canadian violinist James Ehnes at the wheel. Yes, I will be recommending it to every student who is studying this piece. He's also assembled an winning team for the Octet, with violinists Augustin Hadelich, Erin Keefe, Andrew Wan; violists Cynthia Phelps and Richard O'Neill and cellists Robert deMaine and Edward Arron.


Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Berliner Philharmoniker, with Simon Rattle
Perhaps you've been listening to the Nutcracker for many years but have never really "heard" it – it's possible, because a lot of the best music is not part of the frequently-heard "Nutcracker Suite." This high-quality performance includes the entire ballet, and I personally adore every minute of it. The "limited edition," linked above, is cardboard-bound with a gorgeous little book full of history and pictures. For a bit less money, you can get a recording of the whole ballet, without the booklet, or a recording with just excerpts. Watch that you are getting what you want!


Sergey Khachatryan: Bach Sonatas and Partitas
This CD set deserves your ears: Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan plays the Bach unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas with pristine beauty, on the 1702 "Lord Newlands" Strad.



Hilary Hahn: Higdon and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos
This is the world premiere recording of Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto, which was written for Hilary Hahn and which earned a Pulitzer Prize for its composition. Hilary, performing with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko, also offers a thoughtful interpretation of the Tchaikovsky, drawing on the composer's original ideas to create a performance that actually feels quite new.


Philippe Quint: Paganini: Arrangements for Violin & Piano by Fritz Kreisler
Violinist Philippe Quint takes up Fritz Kreisler's arrangements of works by Paganini, including Moto Perpetuo, Op. 11; Le Streghe, Op. 8; Caprices 13, 20 and 24; "La Campanella" from the Violin Concerto No. 2; and sets of variations from two Rossini Operas: "Non più mesta" from La Cenerentola and "Di tanti palpiti" from Tancredi. He is accompanied by pianist Dmitriy Cogan. You might think Kreisler made them easier, but as Philippe told us in an interview in November, he made them even more difficult! Philippe handles it with ease and elegance.


Maud Powell Favorites, Rachel Barton Pine and Karen A. Shaffer
This set of four books is a treasure trove of both history and repertoire, with a full set of violin music, piano accompaniment and program notes. Violinist Rachel Barton Pine has edited 43 works that were dedicated to or played by the famous Victorian-era American violinist, Maud Powell. In the course of her entire book of program notes for these pieces, historian Karen A. Shaffer paints a picture of an entire lost era in American music as well as the remarkable personal history of Maud Powell.


The Dueling Fiddlers: Rock Violin
If your friends or your kids are wondering if violin can be fun, here is some supportive evidence: This high-energy duet, featuring classically-trained violinists Adam DeGraff and Russell Fallstad, perform their own versions of music that inspires them: Green Day, Coldplay, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Joan Jett, Queen, Bach, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Radiohead, "Love Story," and Dave Matthews. In short, this music Rocks.


Scott and Lara St. John and The Knights orchestra: Mozart
What could be better for the holidays than two siblings, playing in perfect harmony? Lara and Scott St. John prove that this is indeed possible, with their recording of Mozart works. Together they play the Sinfonia Concertante (Scott on scordatura viola); then Scott plays Mozart Concerto No. 1 and Lara plays Mozart Concerto No. 2, all with The Knights orchestra of New York. If you are curious about that scordatura viola, check out our interview with Lara from October.


Antal Szalai: Enescu Violin Sonatas
Why haven't I ever played any of these sonatas, or really heard of them, for that matter? Hungarian violinist Antal Szalai performs these Romanian-flavored works by George Enescu (1881-1955) with elegance and style, with pianist József Balog. Enescu wrote three sonatas, all of which are included in this recording.


Dylana Jenson: Shostakovich and Barber Violin Concertos
She's back, baby! Violinist Dylana Jenson gives a riveting, on-the-edge-of-your-seat performance of the Shostakovich concerto.




Time for Three: Three Fervent Travelers
Three students at Curtis Institute liked jamming together, and from this came Time for Three, featuring violinist Zach De Pue, violinist Nick Kendall and bassist Ranaan Meyer. This is fun stuff, appealing to anyone, full of energy and invention. If the violin is going anywhere, look in this direction. I love this album, and I listen to it all the time.


Regina Carter: "Reverse Thread"
Jazz violinist Regina Carter turns her attentions to the music of Africa with this recording of her take on 12 songs from that continent, featuring also the African harp ("kora"), accordian, guitar, bass and percussion. It makes for good listening: a little minimalist, a little jazzy, a little different.


Anne-Sophie Mutter: Brahms Violin Sonatas, the CD and the DVD
While "on sabbatical" a year go, German superstar violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter made both a live DVD recording and a separate CD recording of all three Brahms Violin Sonatas, with pianist Lambert Orkis. Which would I recommend? It depends, of course. If you enjoy visually watching the technique of a world-class violinist and the interaction between two musicians who have been playing together for 20 years, get the DVD. It's also recorded at a beautiful location, a library hall in Germany. But if you are most interested in a breathtaking rendition of G minor Sonata, the one captured on the CD is like no other.


Gil Shaham with the Sejong Soloists: Haydn Violin Concertos, Mendelssohn Octet
Amazing, that Mendelssohn wrote his Octet at the age of 16. This is a recording that stems from a series of concerts that violinist Gil Shaham and the Sejong Soloists gave in 2009, to mark the bicentennial of Felix Mendelssohn's birth -- and Franz Joseph Haydn's death -- in the year 1809.


Anne Akiko Meyers: Seasons...Dreams...
Anne Akiko Meyers recorded this album of works inspired by the seasons and by dreams on her "Royal Spanish" Strad, just before she bought the $3.6 million "ex-Molitor" Stradivarius late this year. The album includes an eclectic mix of music: Beethoven's "Spring Sonata"; an arrangement of "Sakura, Sakura" by Gene Pritsker; "Tenderly/Autumn Leaves"; "Autumn in New York"; "Summertime" by Gershwin; even Schnittke's dissonance-laced "Stille Nacht."


Frank Almond: Portraits, Elegies
American violinist Frank Almond and pianist Brian Zeger perform works by 20th- and 21st-century composers, including Philip Lasser, Ned Rorem, Peter Lieberson and Russell Platt. Almond plays the 1715 "Lipinski" Strad in this recording. As implied by the title of the recording, many of the pieces have a haunting quality, elegeic. Perhaps for its synthesis of old and new, I found myself especially enjoying the "Lamentoso (Chaconne)" from Russell Platt's "Autumn Music" sonata, written in 2007. Kudos to Almond for bringing forward works by living classical composers.


Misha Keylin with the Slovack Radio Symphony Orchestra: Vieuxtemps: Fantasia Appassionata Ballade Et Polonaise
Violinist Misha Keylin has been slowly recording just about every piece ever written by Henry Vieuxtemps, and here he presents showpieces: Fantasia Appassionata, Op. 35; Ballade et Polonaise, Op. 38; Fantasie Caprice, Op. 11; Greeting to America, Op. 56.


Stefan Jackiw: Brahms Violin Sonatas
Korean violinist Stefan Jackiw, in collaboration with pianist Max Levinson, gives the Brahms Sonatas long lines and fluidity, showing an elegant sense of restraint. This is Jackiw's debut recording, and it certainly has me looking forward to more. Jackiw has also written thoughtful and reflective liner notes in both English and Korean, including the lyrics for "Regenlied" (the "Rain Song" on which the first sonata is based) in their entirety.


Takako Nishizaki: Suzuki Evergreens
Did you ever wonder where some of those Suzuki tunes came from? Here's an excellent gift for the Suzuki student in your life. Takako Nishizaki's recordings do what many Suzuki teachers have been doing piecemeal for years: juxtaposing the Suzuki version of pieces with the original music. For example, in Volume 2 of Suzuki Evergreens, the Bach Bourree that appears in Suzuki Book 5 is played just before the Bourree from Cello Suite No. 3 from which it was arranged. In Suzuki Evergreens Vol. 6, the Mozart Minuet that appears at the beginning of Suzuki Book 7 is played just before the original Minuet from Mozart's String Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421. Both Takako and her father, Shinji, studied with Shinichi Suzuki, Takako being among the first children to complete Suzuki course, and at age 9, being the youngest to receive a teaching diploma.


Brooklyn Rider: Dominant Curve
If you are ready to venture to new soundscapes, then try this collection of works that range from the tried-and-true quartet by Claude Debussy to brand-new works by 21st-century composers: quartet member Colin Jacobsen; Kojiro Umezaki (who also provides electronics); and Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky. There's also an arrangement by Justin Messina of "In a Landscape" by John Cage. Brookyln Rider consists of violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen.


Simon Fischer: The Secrets of Tone Production
London-based violin pedagogue Simon Fischer, whose book "Basics" is a Bible of violin technique, has released a DVD that takes the listener through five basic tone exercises and more. Equally valuable is his introduction, "Knowing the instrument," which explains the complex physics of the violin in simple terms, creating new ways to understand why certain techniques do and do not work.


Steven Greenman: Stempenyu's Neshome
Cleveland-based Klezmer violinist Steven Greenman has composed a collection of original Jewish spiritual melodies, inspired by the traditions of the past. The recording's title literally means "Stempenyu's soul," referring to "Stempenyu," the legendary 19th-century Jewish violinist.


The Nigel Kennedy Quintet: Shhh!
Here is bad-boy violinist Nigel Kennedy's jazz album, featuring many of his own compositions; I was most fascinated by the song "River Man," by Nick Drake, sung by a gravelly-voiced Boy George. It would appear they had a lot of fun making this album.


Manor House String Quartet: "I Saw Three Ships" Christmas CD
English violinist Vaughan Jones has arranged 23 popular Christmas carols for string quartet -- let's hope he also publishes a book of the arrangements because they sound like a lot of fun. The quartets are performed by the Manor House String Quartet of London, which besides Jones, includes violinist Louise Bevan, violist Adrian Smith and cellist Julia Graham. One of the best arrangements, in my opinion, shares the same title as the CD, "I Saw Three Ships," with some nice rhythmic pizzicato making way for those three ships. By the way you can listen to samples on the Manor House String Quartet website, if you scroll to the bottom.

* * *

If you still would like to see more of our recommendations, please see our holiday gift guide from 2009, and our gift guide from 2008.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on December 6, 2010 at 6:58 PM

Thanks for the suggestions.  I have not even heard of most of these.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 6, 2010 at 7:32 PM

 Tom, then I'm glad I compiled them! I listened to most of them over the past year, as I received them, but gave them a re-listen as I wrote this piece. It was overwhelming, but in a good way. I am just so heartened by the artistry of a new generation of violinists who deserve our full consideration and support. How about a new rule of thumb for all of us: listen to the artists of old on YouTube, but BUY the mp3 or CD from the live artists, because you support the living continuation of our art.

From Marc Mouries
Posted on December 6, 2010 at 8:54 PM

What about a list for the young players? Some ideas, scores from favorite movie, what else?


From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 6, 2010 at 9:47 PM

 Hi Marc,

I see we are about the same age. :) This is a list for young players and older players alike, actually. If people have favorite soundtracks, that's great, but I find that young people enjoy extremely high-quality classical music as much as I do, especially young violinists! And there's a good many alternative options to classical music. But as I say, this is a starting point. Please feel free to add other things that you recommend.

From Michael Snow
Posted on December 8, 2010 at 2:37 AM

I really wonder who decides what portions of a movement to use for the Amazon sound clips. For the Lara St. John album, there only only three sound clips. There is about 10 seconds of the second piece, after the introduction, where the violin solo is playing. The first and third sound clips are nothing but orchestra! Great way to try to sell an album . . . :-(

From Frank-Michael Fischer
Posted on December 9, 2010 at 2:37 PM

Good news: Here you'll find over 15' of audio samples from Julia Fischer's Paganini CD. Published by WGBH in Keith Lockharts "Classical Corner"



From Bruce Zeisel
Posted on December 12, 2010 at 3:52 PM

I was delighted to see Lara St. John and the Knights make this list along with the Brooklyn Riders disc.  I was privileged to hear Lara with Martin Kennedy last month at the Troy Music Hall which is one of the world's finest small halls.  Lara is a superb artist.

But I wonder how you managed to include any of the several discs above without calling attention to 2 recently released and extraordinary violin recordings.  The Elgar concerto has now been released with Tasmin LIttle on Chandos  This wonderful performance is treated to the typical Chandos sound.  If you love that sound you will be in heaven - assuming you love Elgar. 

Here is the link for Tasmin Little's Elgar Concerto:

But the really glaring oversight was not to include Arabella Steinbacher's breath-taking performance of both Bartok concerti with Marek Janowski and L' Orchestre de la Suisse Romande .  Gramophone magazine's headliners for their review were:  "Arabella Steinbacher gives us unforgettable Bartok" and "beauty in the details"  See gramophone on line.  But a more extensive review if hardly more praise filled is found at:

Reading either of these will show that I am not the only person to go ga-ga over this one.  The violin playing is out-of-this-world.  The tone quality is extraordinary, the virtuosity is stunning.  The breadth of conception, the understanding, the sense of oneness with the music.  No one, not Hilary Hahn, nor Julia Fischer, nor Vadim Repin, nor Nikolai Znaider,  has ever brought me closer to a feeling of union with ANY composer.  No artist has ever left me feeling more satisfied and fulfilled (and emotionally drained)  after experiencing any music.  In fact, none of those nor Heifetz nor Oistrach (as experienced on recordings only) have even come close to equaling Steinbacher's achievement.

No one who either loves Bartok or the violin should miss this!

From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 12, 2010 at 7:48 PM

 Bruce, I welcome your worthy additions; I knew that I would inevitably leave some out, and I am always happy when people can share their thoughts and add to this list. I've added a link to Tasmin's recording to your comment and also made the other link live.

Please feel free to add to this list! Not only do I feel it's important for us to support the live musicians of today, but also they are creating such inspiring work, it really would be sad to miss out. And with most of these artists, if you like what they do, you can also make it a point to see them perform live.

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