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 Recording of the Week  Fritz Kreisler

The first of this year’s anniversaries is that of the Austrian born violinist-composer Fritz Kreisler who died fifty years ago this month. I’ve really enjoyed my Christmas holidays listening to his recordings and researching about his life and legacy. I can’t think of any instrumentalists around today with such a characteristic sound, which is so instantly recognizable. But he was also a notable composer. His cadenzas (in particular the one he wrote for the Beethoven Concerto) are frequently played, his shorter works often feature as encores, and every serious violin student will have studied and learnt a number of his Viennese-style miniatures.

Fritz Kreisler
Fritz Kreisler

Born in Vienna in 1875, he studied music at the Vienna Conservatory and at the Paris Conservatoire where his teachers included amongst others Bruckner and Massenet. After a successful tour of the United States as a supporting artist to the pianist Moriz Rosenthal he returned to Austria and applied for a job in the Vienna Philharmonic. He was turned down by the famous concertmaster Arnold Rosé, and subsequently left music to study medicine. One assumes that he was turned down not because he wasn’t good enough, but because his already vibrato-rich style would not have fitted in with the violin section of the orchestra. Thankfully he returned to the violin a few years later and went on to become one of the most famous violinists of all time.

He commissioned Elgar to write a Violin Concerto, which he premiered in 1910, and for nearly half a century he maintained a punishing touring schedule as well as making a number of recordings. The bulk of these recordings (made between 1904 and 1946) were collected together a few years ago by EMI onto one of their ICON series boxes. This set is a tremendous way to get to know Kreisler the violinist.

Listening to these recordings today you can hear his remarkable sound – characterised by an almost constant, but varied vibrato. He tended to avoid using his fourth finger in order to maintain his expressive sound and that gave rise to another of his notable characteristics – portamento. Since the mid 20th Century the sliding between notes has generally become considered over-sentimental and in poor taste, but for Kreisler it was merely a means of expression and an aid to the phrasing.

The violinist Isaac Stern, who observed his playing in the 1940s, commented how he only seemed to use the middle part of the bow, and it was this combined with considerable arm weight and the vibrato which probably together are the chief factors in producing the pure, penetrating and sweet tone which he became so famous for.

Aside from being one of the superstar violinists of all time, Kreisler was also a composer of considerable note. Famous mainly for his Viennese-style melodies, such as Liebesfreud and Liebesleid, he also wrote a number of pastiches ‘in the style’ of other composers such as Vivaldi and Tartini. Originally he presented these as newly discovered works by the composers themselves, and it caused something of a controversy when in 1935 he revealed they were actually all by him. By then they had already been accepted as worthy compositions and as he reportedly said at the time “the name changes, the value remains”. He also made a number of arrangements for violin and piano, cadenzas for the Beethoven, Brahms, Paganini (No. 1) and Mozart (Nos. 3-5) Concertos, and a string quartet (which is included on the EMI box).

To mark the anniversary, DG have just released a 2-CD ‘Homage to Kreisler’ set which contains recordings of all his major original compositions and most popular arrangements. Put together from recordings in their archives including violinists like Ruggiero Ricci, Shlomo Mintz and Anne-Sophie Mutter it makes a compelling set. It also includes some very early Kreisler recordings (1910-12) which give a fascinating glimpse of the artist himself although are in no way comparable to the treasures residing on the EMI box.

Fritz Kreisler: The Charming Maverick

itz Kreisler (violin)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC