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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Violin Prodigy Michael Rabin Was Destroyed by Adoration




The music prodigy grows up surrounded by visions of the future: shiny, limitless ones conjured by agents and fans, dire ones growled by somber critics. Promises of Olympian glory and warnings of ashen misery crowd into the young virtuoso's practice room.


And every pundit draws on precedent. There are those who cite Yehudi Menuhin, the Bronx-born boy who began his career as a violinist at age 7 and died earlier this year, a venerable eminence at 82. Others invoke Michael Rabin, the Manhattan-born boy who began his professional career as a violinist at age 10 and died at 35 in 1972, already a decade past his prime.


The title of the Sony/Masterworks Heritage CD "Michael Rabin: The Early Years" is somewhat misleading - early years were the only kind Rabin ever had - but it is a reminder of that sheen of promise. America first knew him as a pudgy 14-year-old with a querulous look and brilliantined hair who played the violin with Mephistophelean brilliance. It was 1950, when a teenage violinist could still become a pop celebrity simply by playing superbly. That year, he played on nationwide radio, then, a few months later, in Carnegie Hall. His orotund tone and sparkling rhythms made him the model of the child master, an unsettling and dazzling combination of wisdom and fizz, exuberance and discipline.


There is no hint in his early recordings of the artiste maudit Rabin would become, no trace of desperation to foreshadow his tumble to a premature eclipse and an early death. In 1962, he famously backed out of inaugurating Lincoln Center, and his playing was soon being compared, unfavorably, to another prodigy, Itzhak Perlman. When he died, apparently of a drug overdose, The New York Times obituary barely mentioned anything he had done since he had turned 18.


This halcyon re-release will certainly win new acolytes to the order of Rabin's flame-keepers, but it sheds no light on the central mystery of his life: Did music save or kill him? Was he the victim of a vampirical entertainment industry that was happy to suck his creativity and then toss the body aside, or was he a troubled young artist for whom music meant the possibility of both succor and success?


These are both caricatured conclusions, of course - Rabin was a man, not an object lesson. Still, it's hard not to listen to the future in this relic from the past or to wonder, the next time a publicist is pitching a prodigy as the next Midori, whether what we are being offered is not actually the next Michael Rabin. And if we knew that what we were seeing was the spectacular self-destruction of a short-term talent, would we avert our eyes? One of the century's happiest counterweights to the Rabin example is the story of Benjamin Britten, as a new set of releases from the BBC's record label illustrates ("Britten the Performer'' Vols. 1, 2 & 3). Britten, too, possessed a talent that was identified well before he reached the age of consent, but rather than being forced to bloom early, it was trained to climb and spread. Britten, the prodigy composer, became a thorough pianist, a piercing conductor and the creator of one of England's major music festivals in the village of Aldeburgh.


Together, the Rabin and Britten portraits offer a heartbreaking contrast in careers: an adolescent fiddler alone in a studio with music best known for its difficulty, and a grown-up talent contentedly splashing with colleagues in the deep end of music's pool.