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ClassicsOnline Home » BRUCH / BRAHMS: Violin Concertos (Kreisler) (1925, 1936)
For the conductor Hans von Bulow, the 'three Bs' of music were Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. For the Viennese violinist Fritz Kreisler, they were equally important; but he could have added two more Bs: Bruckner and Bruch. And although Bach and Beethoven were already distant historical figures when he was born, he was privileged to know the other three personally. The naive, devout, unworldly Anton Bruckner was his harmony and counterpoint teacher. Johannes Brahms was a familiar figure about town when Kreisler was growing up and the young violinist soon became a part of the composer's outer circle, often encountering him in such places as the Café Grunsteidl - where Brahms would usually be accompanied by his biographer Max Kalbeck and the great critic Eduard Hanslick - or the Tonkunstlerverein, where Kreisler sometimes played chamber music with the composer. In due course Kreisler's pliant interpretation helped to implant Brahms's D major Concerto - which some had thought unplayable - firmly in the public consciousness. Max Bruch's first two concertos were vital parts of Kreisler's repertoire from the beginning but he did not actually get to know the Cologne-born composer until relatively late, in May 1912: at a soirée in the Berlin home of mutual friends, the 74-year-old Bruch played the orchestral part of his Scottish Fantasy on the piano while Kreisler played the solo part in his inimitable way.
Friedrich 'Fritz' Kreisler was born in Vienna on 2 February 1875, the son of Sigmund Freud's family physician, and could read music when he was three. His first violin lessons came from his Polish father Salomon, an enthusiastic amateur, and he went on to Jacques Auber, leader of the Ringtheater orchestra. In 1882 he became the youngest student admitted to the Vienna Conservatory (where his violin tutor was Josef Hellmesberger Jnr) and made his debut at Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary) with the singer Carlotta Patti, sister of Adelina. At ten he won the Conservatory gold medal, was given a three-quarter-size Amati by friends and transferred to the Paris Conservatoire (studying violin with Joseph Massart, composition with Leo Delibes). He met Cesar Franck, played in the Pasdeloup Orchestra and in 1887 took a first prize in violin. In 1888/9 he toured America with the pianist Moriz Rosenthal. He spent two years in Vienna, broadening his education; thought of following his father's profession and did two years' medical training; then did his military service. In 1896 he decided on music and began his career as a travelling virtuoso. He toured Russia, met Glazunov, found a wealthy sponsor and gradually advanced himself, getting to know Joachim, Wolf and Schoenberg as well as Brahms. In January 1898 he made his concerto debut in Vienna with Bruch's G minor, conducted by Hans Richter, and a year later he had an even greater success when he played Bruch's D minor, Vieuxtemps's F sharp minor and Paganini's 'Non piu mesta' Variations for his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic under Josef Rebicek. In November 1899 he was back in Berlin to play the Mendelssohn E minor under Arthur Nikisch. In 1900 he toured America and in 1902 he appeared in London, playing the Beethoven Concerto at the first of Richter's three concerts and the Bruch G minor at the third. His marriage to Harriet Lies that year was crucial to his career, as she organised and motivated him from then on. In 1904 he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society gold medal, in 1911 he premiered the Elgar Concerto and by World War I, in which he was conscripted, wounded in the leg and reported killed, he was famous. He moved to the United States, giving generously to help war orphans and refugees and playing charity concerts. When America entered the war, he was sidelined as an enemy alien; the enforced rest resulted in his operetta Apple Blossoms and his String Quartet. From 1924 Kreisler made his home in Berlin but with the rise of Hitler in 1933, he refused to play in Germany any more. His admission in 1935 that many 'baroque' pieces in his repertoire were his own compositions caused a public rumpus, as the English critic Ernest Newman took umbrage. After the Anschluss of Austria in 1938, Kreisler took French citizenship, then moved to the USA. In 1941 he was hit by a van while crossing a New York street and was in a coma for four weeks. The accident ended his big-time career, though he remained a much-loved figure in America (taking citizenship in 1943) and did not stop playing until after the 1949/50 season. He died in New York on 29 January 1962.
Part of Kreisler's special quality stemmed from his hands. 'He had soft pads on his fingertips, which appeared to be unique,' recalled the Australian violinist Daisy Kennedy. He developed the silvery vibrato of the Franco-Belgian players such as Ysaÿe and Massart into a warm, sensuous vibrato that he applied to every phrase, virtually overlapping it from note to note. This way of 'keeping the left hand alive' was a revelation to his rivals and admirers alike, at the turn of the century. One of the admirers was the English violist Lionel Tertis, who adapted the Kreisler vibrato to the viola; the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals was already working on similar lines to create a new cello sound - and so, within a decade or so, the entire approach to playing stringed instruments began to change. Another Kreisler speciality was extracting different colours from the violin, by playing particular notes in unusual positions - an ability he used to create the most delicate effects in short pieces. These trifles demonstrated his natural command of tempo rubato, fine intonation - his double stops were legendary - and economical bowing. He kept the bow hair exceptionally tight (not even loosening it between performances!) and varied the pressure; at one moment the bow seemed glued to the string, at another it moved with the deftness he had learnt in Paris.
Kreisler had relatively few concertos in his active repertoire and he recorded even fewer. The performances here were set down under very different circumstances. The Bruch was done at the tail end of the acoustic era: the soloist stood in front of a large horn, not daring to move too much in case he affected the quality of the sound - inhibiting for a string player - while the small orchestra was crammed in behind him; double basses did not register so tubas were used instead. Kreisler was a recording veteran but his conductor was the inexperienced Eugene Goossens, which may account for three days of sessions being needed. Of the six sides which were submitted to Kreisler for his approval, only one was a first take; and one was a seventh. For commercial reasons the set was never issued and in its 78rpm form it became a super-rarity, only one copy being known to exist. The interpretation is of immense interest, in spite of the caveats expressed by Mark Obert-Thorn in his note; it is also very beautiful. For some reason the legendary producer at His Master's Voice, Fred Gaisberg, never persuaded Kreisler to redo the Bruch in the electric process which came in during 1925. On the other hand Gaisberg, who worshipped Kreisler, did get him to repeat the Brahms Concerto, even though HMV already had a superb electric recording made in Berlin nine years earlier. For the remake, Gaisberg booked London's best orchestra, the Philharmonic, and young John Barbirolli. Apart from the improved sound, the chief differences between this performance and that of 1927 are that Kreisler's playing is less flamboyant, more philosophical, and that whereas Leo Blech conducts a relatively classical performance, Barbirolli is more inclined to follow his soloist's tempo changes. Did Kreisler approve? In 1904, when rehearsing the Larghetto of the Beethoven Concerto with the Norwich Philharmonic, he told the conductor Frank Bates: 'Do not follow me, but I will play around the tune.' Well, Barbirolli was renowned for sticking to his soloists and as his widow Evelyn said of this recording and the Beethoven done at the same time: 'He adored Kreisler and would have wanted to make things as easy as possible for him.' In the Brahms, there is the bonus of hearing Kreisler playing his own cadenza. There is also a link with the Bruch sessions, as the oboe solo at the start of the Adagio is played by Léon Goossens, younger brother of Eugene and one of those who pioneered the modern way of playing what he jokingly called 'an ill wind that nobody blows good'.
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BRUCH / BRAHMS: Violin Concertos (Kreisler) (1925,...