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ClassicsOnline Home » KREISLER, F.: String Quartet / ZIMBALIST, E.: String Quartet / YSAYE, E.: Harmonies du soir (Fine Arts Quartet, Philharmonic Orchestra of Europe)
The legendary Fritz Kreisler and his friend Efrem Zimbalist were both ranked among the greatest violinists of their time, becoming household names in America in the 1920s. Their generation, however, regarded Eugène Ysaÿe as ‘the master of us all’. These works all transcend mere virtuoso showmanship. Kreisler’s Quartet is filled with emotion and unpredictable harmonic shifts, while the tender, sometimes hauntingly beautiful melodies in Zimbalist’s Quartet hark back to the composer’s Russian origins. Ysaÿe’s Harmonies du soir emerges as a sensual chromatic journey towards a glorious musical sunrise.
By Gary Lemco
Fritz Kreisler (1875–1962): String Quartet in A minor
Efrem Zimbalist (1890–1985): String Quartet in E minor
Eugène Ysaÿe (1858–1931): Harmonies du soir, Op. 31
Efrem Zimbalist was chronologically the last of the golden age virtuoso performer/composers. He was immediately preceded by his colleagues Fritz Kreisler and Eugène Ysaÿe, the long line continuing back to Paganini and beyond by way of George Enescu, Pablo de Sarasate, Joseph Joachim, Henryk Wieniawski, Henry Vieuxtemps and Ludwig Spohr. The composers represented on this recording, however, were not mere composers of virtuosic violin showpieces. They shared with Spohr and Enescu the distinction of being drawn to create ‘serious’ works on a far larger canvas that went beyond the solo violin. They were friends as well as colleagues, living as they did in a time when individuality was appreciated. Kreisler played viola with Zimbalist in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, and they recorded the Bach Double Concerto together. When their respective operettas opened on Broadway, a cheery Jascha Heifetz was in attendance. All shared mutual respect for their senior colleague, Ysaÿe.
There can be little doubt that Fritz Kreisler was perhaps the most beloved violinist in history. Surprisingly, he attained that position falteringly. Born in Vienna to a prominent doctor, his early promise got him into the Vienna Conservatory at the tender age of seven. He graduated in 1885 and proceeded to the Paris Conservatoire to study with Lambert Massart when he was ten. While there, his composition teacher was Léo Delibes, and one hears recurrent if unsubstantiated rumours that Delibes filched one of young Fritz’s tunes from an assignment and used it in his ballet, Coppélia. Kreisler won the Premier Prix in 1887. Following this, the advent of his solo career was disappointing enough to prompt thoughts of another field. After completing his secondary education, he entered medical school. His interest soon waned and after spending some time doing army service, Kreisler, by his own admission reluctantly, returned to the violin. Success came slowly, but he hit his stride in America, where he appeared regularly starting in 1900. Particularly notable was his première in 1910 in London of Elgar’s Concerto, dedicated to him. Early on, his short encore pieces won great acclaim, owing not only to their charm, but also to a scandal that arose around them. Many of the titbits Kreisler played on his programmes were his own, but at some point he started to include arrangements he claimed to have made from works by early masters, unearthed in European monasteries. Critic Olin Downes, after extensive research, publicly announced a hoax, and Kreisler, after a lengthy feud, finally confessed to being the sole composer. Following the first World War, during which he had fought on the German side, Kreisler received a cool reception in America. The veteran French violinist Jacques Thibaud had been a close friend of Kreisler’s since Paris days. Walking down the street, Thibaud, who had fought on the French side, noticed Kreisler approaching. When they passed, each of the old friends merely saluted, looking straight ahead. Kreisler and Zimbalist were also close friends. The Zimbalists owned a charming beach house at Fishers Island, New York. When Kreisler was finally booed off the stage, they invited him and his wife Harriet to weather the storm there with them. Zimbalist suggested that he and Kreisler each write an operetta to while the time away. The result was Zimbalist’s Honeydew and Kreisler’s Apple Blossoms, both of which ran successfully on Broadway. In time, Kreisler returned to the concert platform, and by the 1920s he was getting the highest fees of any violinist, including Heifetz.
Kreisler’s String Quartet was written in 1919 and received its first performance by the Letz Quartet at a Bohemians Club dinner honouring the Zimbalists. Kreisler recorded it in 1935 with Thomas Petrie, William Primrose and Laurie Kennedy. It is a work redolent with the Kreisler ethos, with all its emotion and unpredictable harmonic shifts. Kreisler, like Zimbalist, was enamoured of all things Oriental and here and there one catches a whiff of incense. (Cellist David Soyer detected a trace of Tambourin Chinois in the Finale.) It is a work that demands equal virtuosity of all four players, perhaps accounting for its few performances.
Despite his popular success, Kreisler’s later years were tinged with melancholy. After suffering a near fatal accident in 1941 that left him with memory loss and physical problems, he played fewer and fewer concerts. Eventually, never fond of practising, he did not touch the violin or, toward the end, even own one. He had never taught, he and Harriet were childless, and his social life was carefully controlled by her. One of his remaining pleasures was escaping to the office of his long-time friend and publisher, Charles Foley, where they would lunch and chat. He once arrived looking dejected and told Foley that no one on the sidewalk recognized him anymore. Worldwide the brilliance and charm of his encores will continue to be recognized and loved by all.
Efrem Zimbalist was the first great talent to enter the class of the fabled Leopold Auer, followed a year later by Mischa Elman and seven years after that, by Jascha Heifetz. (Auer considered Zimbalist the intellectual of the group.) In the early decades of the twentieth century, these three, along with Fritz Kreisler, were to become household names to American music-lovers. Zimbalist was born in Rostov, where his father was the conductor for the Ukrainian Opera Company and gave him his first lessons. He was accepted by Auer when he was eleven and spent six years with him at the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he also studied composition under Anatoly Liadov and became close to Rimsky-Korsakov. Upon graduation he was awarded a gold medal and the prestigious Rubinstein Prize. His Berlin début the following year was a resounding success, and concerts throughout Europe and England confirmed his stature. There were concertos with Hans Richter, Artur Nikisch and Richard Strauss, to whom he introduced the relatively new Tchaikovsky Concerto. (Strauss’s comment: ‘Oh, it’s not as bad as I’d expected!’) One of Zimbalist’s earliest idols, Ysaÿe, attended his Brussels début and invited him home for a late supper. Zimbalist was playing on a 1745 Lorenzo Guadagnini. Ysaÿe, too, owned one and was interested to try it out. Zimbalist recalled his trepidation when Ysaÿe picked it up: ‘He looked as powerful as a bear, and his fingers were at least one third thicker and longer than mine. I thought he would put one of them right through my little violin.’ Zimbalist introduced the Glazunov Concerto to American audiences in 1911 and took up American residence a few years later. He married the soprano Alma Gluck in 1914 and they toured together with him playing violin obbligati and sometimes accompanying her on the piano. Their recording of Old Folks At Home was the first Victor release to sell a million copies its first year. Their Park Avenue home became a central hub for New York’s high society.
Zimbalist’s first piece, Suite in alter Form, was written for Professor Auer and published in 1911. Then, in fairly regular order, came his Slavonic Dances, Coq d’Or Fantasy, String Quartet, Violin Sonata, two symphonic poems American Rhapsody and Daphnis & Chloe, Violin Concerto, Piano Concerto and two operas Landara and The Two Stories. Both Stokowski and Zimbalist conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in the symphonic works. There were also many further chamber music pieces, the last of which, Sarasateana for piano quintet, was performed posthumously.
The String Quartet was finished in 1931 and introduced at Town Hall by the Musical Art Quartet in February 1932. It left New York Sun critic WJ Henderson with ‘the impression of a refined, scholarly and generous mind working in a sympathetic medium with musicianly skill and judgment and exquisite taste.’ He noted too that some of its harmonies went far beyond anything recognized by pre- Debussy masters, almost touching hands with Stravinsky. However, the concert nearly had to be called off: arriving at first violinist Sascha Jacobsen’s apartment late at night after their dress rehearsal, the quartet discovered their music missing. They searched high and low to no avail. The parts were handwritten by the composer and the only ones extant. Zimbalist hired two copyists to work through the night preparing new parts from the score; the quartet then rehearsed frantically, trying to reconstruct fingerings and bowings. The Jacques Gordon Quartet subsequently recorded the work. Zimbalist, always a perfectionist, made substantial changes in his 1959 revision, and it is this version that the Fine Arts Quartet uses in its première recording. In four movements, the piece is typical in its thoughtful working out of ideas and its unabashedly tender melodies. The first movement is perhaps the most Russian in mood, one moment stark and brooding, the next openly emotional, even frenetic. The inventive scherzo is followed by an Andante con moto filled with the warmth of Zimbalist’s personality, especially in the hauntingly beautiful second theme. The last movement, a fiendish moto perpetuo, reminds us that he was one of the violin kingdom’s supreme technicians.
Zimbalist’s second wife was Mary Louise Curtis Bok, founder of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (Alma Gluck died in 1938). He was invited by Josef Hofmann to join the faculty and later replaced him as director. He gave his New York farewell in 1948, but came out of retirement to give the première of Menotti’s Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1952. His later years were fulfilling ones. Constantly in demand to judge international violin competitions, at home he was surrounded by doting students and numerous family members (his son is the actor, Efrem Zimbalist Jr). To the end, he spent his time composing, editing solo Bach and practising the violin, which he loved dearly. Someone asked him why in his nineties he still practised. Zimbalist answered, ‘I have practised every day of my life. Why should I stop now?’
Eugène Ysaÿe was a giant of a man, both artistically and physically, topping the scale at 300 plus pounds. Both Kreisler and Zimbalist, along with such violinists as Elman, Thibaud, Szigeti, Enescu and, later, Milstein looked up to him as notre maître à tous, the master of us all. Born in Liège, Ysaÿe had his first lessons, starting at four, under the strict tutelage of his father. Henryk Vieuxtemps heard him practising in the cellar and urged him to enter the Liège Conservatoire when he was seven. There he studied with Rudolphe Massart, nephew of the Paris Conservatoire’s Lambert Massart. Then he attended the Brussels Conservatoire, where Wieniawski had replaced the ailing Vieuxtemps. Ysaÿe later caught up with Vieuxtemps in Paris, greatly benefiting from his guidance. Historically Ysaÿe is seen as having inherited the mantle of the great Romantic tradition of Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski. Nonetheless, his career rose slowly. He was sometimes unfavourably compared with Wieniawski and also had to contend with the extremely popular Pablo de Sarasate as a rival. After settling in Paris, he forged a different approach in allying himself with the ranking forward-looking composers of the period, such as Franck, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, d’Indy, Fauré, Chausson and Lekeu. Franck’s Sonata is dedicated to him, as were Debussy’s String Quartet and Chausson’s Poème of all of which he gave the premières. He also played chamber music with Anton Rubinstein and Rachmaninov, but his most famous sonata partnership was with Raoul Pugno, who matched him in girth and ravenous appetites. On tour in a small Belgian town, the combined weight of Ysaÿe, Pugno and the nine-foot grand proved too much for the theatre’s ancient stage, visibly sagging under them. Ysaÿe’s personality was equally large, and he was proud of his ability to communicate his emotions and musical thoughts, saying that without the interpreter a score is but a voice in the wilderness. He was always able to take liberties with the score that composers approved. To sum up his violinistic abilities, he wrote: ‘Playing the violin is rather easy, even banal. But to feel, to palpitate, to make the soul of the instrument vibrate is a gift of God!’
When, in 1916, Ysaÿe returned to play in New York, Zimbalist, retaining the vivid impression of his playing in earlier years, immediately bought tickets. Leaving the box office, he encountered Sascha Jacobsen, who had heard Ysaÿe recently. On Jacobsen’s advice, Zimbalist gave his tickets away, preserving intact the cherished memory of Ysaÿe at the height of his powers. By this time Ysaÿe had developed a troublesome bow tremor and was starting to cut down on his concertizing, turning more to teaching, composing and conducting. In need of money, despite his dislike of the American way of life, in 1918 he accepted the directorship of the Cincinnati Orchestra, where he had great success. Laudably, in addition to standard repertoire, he also gave United States premières of many contemporary works. His tenure lasted until 1922, when he returned permanently to Europe.
Ysaÿe never studied composition formally. Boris Schwartz describes his creative profile as post-Romantic and influenced by the French Impressionistic idiom. His oeuvre consists of six solo violin sonatas, assorted chamber works, violin pieces with both piano and orchestra, cadenzas to the concertos of Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart (Third) and Viotti (Twenty-second), and his final opus, a Walloon opera Pier-li-Houyeu (Peter the Miner). Many of these remain unpublished. The solo sonatas, published in 1924 by Schott Frères, have entered the regular repertoire.
Harmonies du soir, Op. 31, is a fascinating novelty. Géry Lemaire described the score as ‘a messy doodle of a manuscript written in light pencil. On the last page, still in the author’s hand, and just before his signature, we read “this poem, sketched in Cincinnati in 1922, was lost for two years afterwards. I found it again in May of 1924 and finished it at Le Zoute.” (his getaway on the Belgian coast). Then as a postscript: “Executed at Her Majesty the Queen’s October 29 1925.”’ The original Ysaÿe Quartet was reassembled for a private performance for Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, an amateur violinist who had studied with him and became a lifelong admirer and supporter. In 1937 she established an international competition for violinists and pianists in his name, which continues today as the Queen Elisabeth competition. Harmonies du soir is a sensuously chromatic journey through thickly textured emotions and colours finally leading, by restlessly climbing motifs, to a glorious sunrise in C. The only documented public performance was given by the Columbia University Strings in New York in 1979. This is its first recording.
In 1927 Ysaÿe played the Beethoven Concerto in Barcelona, under Casals’ baton. It was his last concert. He had been struggling with diabetes and the heart trouble associated with it for years, and his health was in severe decline. Finally it became necessary to amputate his right foot, and it was while he was recovering from this that he turned his hand to completing the sketch he had made years before for an opera based on a tragedy he had witnessed at the Liège coal mines. His early childhood leisure hours had been passed happily clambering on the slag heaps next to his home in the company of the miners’ children. In 1877 the miners had gone on strike. During clashes with the police, shots were fired. The wife of a foreman rushed forward to seize a grenade that had been placed in the mining office by a striker. The grenade exploded and she was killed. This incident had made an indelible imprint on the nineteen-year-old Eugene’s mind. Pier-li-Houyeu (Peter the Miner) was completed only a few years before his own death and in 1930, having been equipped with an artificial foot, Ysaÿe had his hopes set on conducting the opera himself, but he collapsed at the first rehearsal and had to listen to its première over the radio, flat on his back in a Brussels clinic.
Ysaÿe was given a state funeral, with thousands following the coffin. After lying in state, his heart was put into an exquisitely sculpted silver urn where it now rests at the Ysaÿe museum in Liège.
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