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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN / MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concertos (Kreisler) (1935-1936)
Great Violinists Fritz Kreisler
BEETHOVEN (1770-1827): Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847): Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
Nowadays, when artists record the same repertoire two, three or four times, and virtually every piece of music is available on CD, looking through the classical catalogues of sixty or seventy years ago produces quaint impressions. One was lucky then to find a single version of a work on record; and the only reason an artist was asked to re-record a title was purely technical. Perhaps he or she had recorded it in the dim acoustic process and a bright new electric recording was wanted by the record company. Perhaps the first recording had been flawed in some way. Or perhaps the original metal master had collapsed through over-use. Well, great artists make their own rules; and Fritz Kreisler was an exception to most petty restrictions. He had a strong ally in Fred Gaisberg, the American-born recording pioneer who invented the profession of record producer. The London-based Gaisberg, who decided the recording policy of His Masters Voice and its affiliates world-wide, worshipped the ground Kreisler walked on and was only too happy to get him into the studio. By the mid-1930s the violinists active repertoire with orchestra had shrunk to a handful of concertos. He still occasionally played the large-scale work that Elgar had written for him, but Gaisberg had been unable to winkle a recording out of him, opting instead for the prodigy Yehudi Menuhin. If any concertos were to be coaxed from Kreisler, they would have to be his familiar warhorses: Mozarts Concerto in D major, K.218, Paganinis Concerto in D major, Beethoven, Viottis Concerto in A minor, Mendelssohn and Brahms. With a little help from his New York colleagues at Victor, who took on the Paganini-Kreisler one-movement arrangement, Gaisberg therefore set about scheduling all these works. In the case of the Mozart, which Kreisler had done only acoustically, and the previously unrecorded Paganini, the result was a boon to posterity; but the other piece which had not been done before, the Viotti, was not recorded because a hot, exhausting summer defeated Kreisler. The other three were duly captured even though HMV already had excellent electric recordings of them by Kreisler, made a decade earlier with Leo Blech conducting. Collectors have been arguing about the merits of the duplicated recordings ever since, and this reissue of two of them is hardly likely to lay the ghosts.
Friedrich Fritz Kreisler was born in Vienna on 2nd February 1875, the son of Sigmund Freuds 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 the younger Josef Hellmesberger, and made his début 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 César 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 fathers 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 début in Vienna with Bruchs Concerto in G minor, conducted by Hans Richter, and a year later he had an even greater success when he played Bruchs Concerto in D minor, Vieuxtemps Concerto in F sharp minor and Paganinis Non più mesta Variations for his début with the Berlin Philharmonic under Josef Rebicek. In November 1899 he was back in Berlin to play the Mendelssohn Concerto in 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 Richters three concerts and the Bruch G minor Concerto at the third. His marriage to Harriet Lies that year was crucial to his career, as she organized and motivated him from then on. In 1904 he was awarded the Philharmonic Society gold medal, in 1911 he gave the first performance of Elgars 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 United States, becoming a citizen in 1943. His career was more or less ended in 1941, when he was hit by a van while absent-mindedly crossing a New York street. He was in a coma for four weeks; and although he recovered and did not stop playing in public until after the 1949/50 season, he was never the same again. He died in New York on 29th January 1962.
Kreisler was a supremely natural player who could go a whole week without looking at his violin, then pick it up and fiddle as if he had been practising for hours. Part of his 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 vibrations 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 admirer was Lionel Tertis, who adapted the Kreisler vibrato to the viola; 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 the many short pieces in his repertoire. In these delicious trifles, most of them written or arranged by himself, he 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.
The first remake to be completed was Mendelssohns Concerto in E minor. Like the others it featured the London Philharmonic, one of the two best orchestras in the British capital, along with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and on the podium was Sir Landon Ronald, Kreislers regular partner in his concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Now virtually forgotten, Ronald (1873-1938) played the same rôle in the early days of recording in England as Bruno Seidler-Winkler did in Germany. Pianist, composer, arranger, conductor and general facilitator, he was the kind of jack-of-all-trades who was indispensable in the pioneering days. The great singers of the time performed and recorded his unpretentious songs and he knew everyone in the musical world. He had previously worked with Kreisler in the studio for the acoustic Mozart Concerto in D major (Naxos 8.110921). He does his usual professional job here, introducing a few rhetorical flourishes of his own but generally concentrating on supporting his soloist. Kreisler himself is in fine fettle, his interpretation not quite as easeful as a decade earlier, and showing a little circumspection in the more virtuosic passages, but memorable in the lyrical episodes, especially the slow movement.
The recording of Beethovens Violin Concerto was the first of two projects to be entrusted to the young John Barbirolli, the other being the Brahms (Naxos 8.110925). A string player himself, Barbirolli shared Gaisbergs hero worship of Kreisler and was possibly too ready to follow him in every deviation from the basic pulse. Sometimes, when listening to this performance, one longs for the tighter framework imposed by Blech in the earlier version, but there are compensations: the recording is clearer, the orchestral playing has many felicities and there is always pleasure in hearing Kreisler negotiating the heavenly Larghetto. A bonus is that in the soloists own cadenzas, dating, amazingly, from his late teens, the excellent 1936 recording catches the Kreisler tone with special fidelity. Nowadays concerto cadenzas are all too often recorded without the orchestra present, so that there is a perceptible change in acoustic; but here they arise spontaneously from the midst of the performance, as they would in the concert hall.
Our series of Kreislers complete concerto recordings comes full circle with these remakes, made a decade later, of two works featured on the first volume. The sources for these transfers were pre-war U.S. Victor "Scroll" and "Gold" label pressings. Although the Mendelssohn was recorded during a single session, there is a difference in the characteristic of the sound between the two sides comprising the second movement great enough to make the side join here more audible than usual.
Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the worlds most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings. Obert-Thorn describes himself as a moderate interventionist rather than a purist or re-processor, unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.
There is no over-reverberant cathedral sound in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many authorised commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially released restorations.
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BEETHOVEN / MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concertos (Kreisle...