Michael Rabin managed to be one of the most talented and tragic violin virtuosi of his generation. Hailed as a child prodigy, his talent matured gracefully into an adult level, but he failed to follow in his emotional growth, resulting in a cutting short of his career. He never reached the age of 36, yet remains one of the most fondly remembered of virtuoso violinists for listeners and fellow musicians such as Pinchas Zukerman, with whom he shared a teacher.
Rabin's father was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic, and his mother a Juilliard-trained pianist. When he was a year old, Rabin was able to beat perfect time, and at three he demonstrated his possession of perfect pitch; by five he was studying the piano, and not long after, while visiting a doctor whose hobby was the violin, Rabin took up a miniature version of the instrument that was in the office and began tuning and playing it, refusing to return it. His father began teaching him the instrument soon after, but before their fifth lesson, the elder Rabin realized that his son's musicianship exceeded his own. Ultimately Rabin studied with Ivan Galamian, the future teacher of Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman.
Rabin made his first professional appearance in 1947, at age ten, with the Havana Philharmonic under Artur Rodzinski, performing the Wieniawski Concerto No. 1. He made his recording debut two years later, on the Columbia Masterworks label, with a set of 11 of Paganini's Caprices for solo violin. The following year came Rabin's Carnegie Hall debut, at age 13, with the Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5, in a performance that had him hailed in The New York Times as "already an accomplished artist...play[ing] with real grace and beauty of tone." No less a figure than the conductor George Szell declared Rabin the greatest violin talent that had come to his attention in the previous 30 years, and Dimitri Mitropoulos called Rabin "the genius violinist of tomorrow."
In the 1950s, Rabin signed with Capitol-EMI, for which he recorded the most important part of his legacy, including the Paganini Violin Concerto No. 1, the first and second violin concertos of Wieniawski, and the Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and Glazunov concertos. At the end of the 1950s, Rabin suddenly cut short his recording career, for reasons that were never clear. He continued to perform regularly in concerts around the world, and even made broadcast recitals during the 1960s revealed his talents undiminished. There were accounts of his emotional instability, and an unstable personal life — he had a rough time adjusting to the change from child prodigy to adult virtuoso, though his talent showed no signs of abatement; during the late '60s there were stories of chronic drug use; he also displayed some unusual neuroses, including a fear of falling off the stage, but none of that should have affected his recording career while leaving his concert career intact. In any case, Rabin never entered a recording studio again after 1959, and in 1972, while still in the prime of his life died in a fall when he slipped on a parquet floor and struck his head on a chair.
Rabin's legacy on record is principally concentrated in EMI's catalog. The complete Paganini 24 Caprices for solo violin are available as a single CD, while the rest of his output has been released in a six-CD set, containing virtually all of his concerto recordings. They remain seminal recordings of each of the pieces.