Actually in the case of violin playing, Je sais quoi. After a lot of careful (and not so careful) thought, I have figured out what it is that sets Antal Szalai apart from the other violinists in the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. It is his deep understanding of the Auer tradition--the tradition that Leopold Auer inherited from Joseph Joachim. Perhaps it is his participation in that tradition that makes Szalai sound like a violinist from a different time. He is, as far as I'm concerned, a consummate professional. The rest of the violinists (many who are quite a bit younger than him), sound like they are gifted and capable students, who have nerves of steel, and know their way around the violin. You can hear the difference in just a few notes.
The "old-world" European tradition (particularly the Jewish European tradition) seems almost scarce in the modern world of high-profile violinists. I imagine it is partly due to the proportionately large number of non-European violinists who are no longer emotionally connected with the fiddle playing tradition (the tradition that inspired much of the violin's best repertoire) that has its roots in Odessa and St. Petersburg. It is possible to learn the art of musical inflection and to find something genuinely beautiful to project in Bloch's Nigun or Auer's Hebrew Melody, but direct experience with the world those pieces come from is something that can't really be taught. You don't have to be Jewish (for example) to play these pieces in a totally satisfying way, but you have to have internalized the pathos of the tradition in order to project it. If you do not, all an audience could hope to experience would be impressively clean and in-tune playing, impeccable rhythm, a beautiful sound with a lovely vibrato, a bit of showmanship, and a surface sheen. These are admirable qualities (some of which I hope to attain some day), but they are not enough for me as a listener. Those elements alone, without the pathos, generally do not satisfy my needs.
Szalai is, in my mind, a worthy successor to Augustin Hadelich. What a thrill it would to hear the two of them play together some day. Prokofiev anyone? How about a recording of some Bartok Duets?
Let's hope that all the judges (who do not confer with one another at all during this competition) are all of sound mind.
UPDATE: Je ne sais porquoi: here's the order of the laureates. I do think that Kang is an excellent violinist. My statement above still stands, and keeps my violinistic tastes firmly planted in the "old school."
1. Clara-Jumi Kang
2. Soyoung Yoon
3. Benjamin Beilman
4. Haoming Xie
5. Antal Szalai
6. Andrey Baranov