Being great at playing one instrument doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be great at another. But over the decades, a handful of fabulous concert violinists have proven to be fabulous pianists, too. Today we’re looking at how these five violinists’ gifts at the piano have impacted and enriched their larger musical lives:
Jascha Heifetz was the most influential violinist of the twentieth century, setting sky-high standards for technical perfection. His most famous teacher was a St. Petersburg Conservatory professor named Leopold Auer, who taught some of the greatest violinists of the era, including giants like Mischa Elman, Nathan Milstein, and Efrem Zimbalist. Auer expected his violin students to also learn the piano and viola.
Heifetz kept up his piano skills throughout his life. In 1925, after Heifetz emigrated to America, he celebrated his naturalization by attending a party at fellow Auer pupil Efram Zimbalist’s house, sitting down at their piano and improvising some jazz. Later, in 1928, after a recording session, Heifetz sat down with his accompanist Isidor Achron to perform a four-hand version of composer José Padilla’s popular song “Valencia”, featuring cheeky quotes from Beethoven and Bizet. This recording wasn’t officially released until 2002.
Heifetz Plays Piano
Heifetz also played at the keyboard during one of his famous filmed masterclasses, accompanying 15-year-old Carol Sindell in Bach’s violin concerto in A-minor, dryly remarking at the end, “Well, we made it.” When he taught, he insisted that violinists play their solo part from a violin and piano score, so they were always conscious of what was happening in the accompaniment.
Heifetz Plays Piano at a Masterclass
Fritz Kreisler may have been the heart and soul of twentieth-century violin playing, but he was also a very talented pianist. Violinist Nathan Milstein recalled how he once met Kreisler at a party, playing piano waltzes in the background for guests: “Turning to me in delight, he said, ‘Nathan, this is my life. Here’s what I love: good light music, the divine waltzes of Strauss, Lanner…’ And suddenly he began improvising on the theme from the slow movement of Brahms’s violin concerto. I had never heard a more astonishing improvisation in my life! It mixed different styles: Beethoven, and something from the Russian symphonies, and Bierdermeier, all so cleverly crafted that you couldn’t tell from where he took what. I listened in awe, holding my breath.”
Kreisler made some fascinating piano rolls for the Ampico company, and, luckily for modern listeners, videos of those performances are available on Youtube.
Here is Kreisler’s piano roll in action.
Ampico Lexington – Midnight Bells – Fritz Kreisler (Heuberger)
And here’s that same piece – Midnight Bells by Richard Heuberger, from his 1898 operetta Der Opernball – with Kreisler on violin. It’s amazing to be able to compare the two performances.
Der Opernball (1993 Remastered Version) : Midnight Bells (Im chambre séparée)
On 1 January 2008, 24-year-old violinist Julia Fischer gave a performance of Saint-Saëns’s third violin concerto in Frankfurt, Germany. Then, after intermission, she returned to the stage and played Grieg’s piano concerto! Both performances were filmed and released on the Decca label. It was a performance that required two years of careful preparation and practice…and many late nights spent at pianos in concert halls around the world.
Edvard Grieg / Piano Concerto in Aminor,op.16 / Julia Fischer
As a little girl, Fischer was initially drawn to the piano, but her pianist mother and brother had priority on the bench. She began studying the violin upon her mother’s recommendation, and eventually became a renowned violin soloist. But she didn’t give up the piano.
She discussed playing both in an interview in February 2023:
Violinist and Pianist Julia Fischer • Living the Classical Life Ep.114
During the Covid-19 pandemic, when concerts were canceled all around the world, violinist Augustin Hadelich wanted to keep performing. The only problem was that he needed a pianist. So he landed on the modern solution of recording himself playing both the piano and violin parts, and then stitching the videos together. The resulting recordings have garnered hundreds of thousands of hits.
In June 2022, he gave a detailed interview about his relationship with the piano, and what violinists can get out of being pianists. “Many violinists focus mostly on the top line. They do hear the rest, but a pianist automatically is much more aware of the harmonies, the structure, counterpoint, polyphony and voice leading, all those important things that are so incredibly useful when you are trying to understand why something is written the way it is.”
Augustin Hadelich plays both parts of Rachmaninoff Vocalise
To round out the list, here’s an encore from violinist James Ehnes playing four-hand piano with pianist Jan Lisiecki at the opening night concert of the Toronto Symphony’s 2017/18 season. Over the course of his career, Ehnes has performed and recorded piano works by composers from John Adams to Fritz Kreisler. The joy in this Dvořák is palpable – and incredible inspiration to aspiring multi-instrumentalists everywhere.
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