INKPOT#52 CLASSICAL MUSIC FEATURE: FRITZ KREISLER – The King of Violinists
The King of Violinists
A Mini Biography
by Johann D’Souza
It would be really quite hard to name a single violinist in history more beloved by the general public and his colleagues than Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962).
At the beginning of the 20th century when musical tastes were changing rapidly, there was a flood of interest and performance of lyrical works. Kreisler quickly came to reign as a violinist who possessed a heightened vibrancy of sound with a marked sense of imagination, poetry and sentiment, distinctly more vivid than that of his predecessors. He was often said to touch the heartstrings of his listeners, and to have opened new vistas of sound, expressiveness, charm, elegance and nobility of style. Lord Menuhin has always used him as a yardstick to measure this depth of feeling that very few violinist can emulate.
One interesting point about Kreisler was the fact that after the age of twelve he never received any formal lessons and relied on his genius and keen powers of observation. At twenty he joined the army and it was there that he composed the famous Beethoven Cadenza for the Violin Concerto in D. (The other famous one being the Jochum edition and not to mention the version composed by the other violinist legend, Jascha Heifetz, 1899-1987).
Kreisler’s concerts exuded a special aura, and listeners often felt like privileged guests at a memorable royal function. Yet there was nothing pompous about the man, in fact it is said that he had a magnificent sense of humour and this even came out in his compositions. Blessed with excellent reflexes, the sheer velocity and clarity of his filigree passage work and trills surpassed those of most specialists in Paganinian gymnastic heroics. Generally speaking Kreislers technical proficiency compared favourably with any of the artists of the pre-Heifetz era. (Heifetz [left] himself ushered in a new era of virtuosity.)
LEFT: Jascha Heifetz (1899-1987).
The Kreisler tone was magical in its effect, different from any other, bewitching yet virile. The tactile impact of his left-hand fingers was amazingly articulate, as were his bowing strokes. He never rushed from climax to climax but always left room for expressiveness. It is said that he was not the “speed merchant” that Heifetz was but often played pieces not just a fraction slower but considerably slower, whatever his tempo. However there was a spirit of spontaneity all along the way which was often said to be unparalleled.
Kreisler is frequently thought of as the inventor of the “reflex vibrato”. This is neither vibrato from the arm or wrist but a combination of both with extremely rapid fingertip vibrato. You would never see his hands “flapping” when vibrato-ing – rather his vibrato was generated from some point within the arm to the oscillating fingertip which itself had an extremely narrow point of contact with the string. Kreisler was the first renowned violinist in history to employ the constant usage of vibrato. His tone was even and more opulent than his predecessors’. He also had this uncanny ability to make lyrical doublestop passages of music sound like two violins blended in mutual song, a skill for which he is unmatched.
In his grace, elegance and nobility, Kreislers playing was pure sensuality. Each note was negotiated with an ear for beautiful and expressive thought. He sought consistently to charm his listeners, and every facet of his playing was directed toward that end. But for all the sensual nuances of his art, his spiritual qualities were celestial.
Despite all this he was never a favourite with the academics – they cited that his attention to textual fidelity (ie. of the score) was rather lacking. Although he has not made many recordings, his Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn recorded in the 1920s with the Berlin State Opera display him in his finest technical form, despite the recordings’ antiquated engineering.
Another aspect of his compositions was his display of lyrically expressed and technically difficult short pieces. Although Kreisler may have been a composer of limited scope, all his efforts are tinged with a certain sense of genius. Apart from his matchless Viennese miniatures and artful transcriptions, his arrangements of Paganinis L’palpiti, Le Streghe and La Campanella, with their technical embellishments, have long provided exciting fare for those of his colleagues who enjoy performing such works. For the modern string quartet, his A minor String Quartet, so strong with luscious harmonies, is making a comeback.
Below are two sets of historical recordings Fritz Kreisler made between 1904-1919. These are full-price recordings on the Biddulph label, and feature Kreisler playing in small ensembles, with vocal soloists and with orchestra.
The Kreisler Collection: Early Victor Recordings Vol.2: 1914-19. BIDDULPH LAB 021-22.Includes BACH Double Violin Concerto, BWV1044. BOCCHERINI Minuet. DVOŘÁK Humoresque. GOUNOD Ave Maria. KREISLER Rondino on a Theme of Beethoven; Polichinelle; Paraphrase on Paderewski’s Minuet; La Gitana; “Who Can Tell?” and “Star of Love” from Apple Blossoms; Caprice Viennois. RAFF Serenade. RACHMANINOV When Night Descends; O Cease Thy Singing Maidens Fair. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV “Song of India” from Sadko. SCHUBERT Ave Maria; Serenade. TCHAIKOVSKY Andante Cantabile.
The Kreisler Collection: 1904 G&T and 1911 HMV Solo Recordings. BIDDULPH LAB 009-10. Includes BACH Prelude in E; Air on the G String; Gavotte in E. BEETHOVEN Minuet in G; Andante in F. BRAHMS Hungarian Dance No.5. BRUCH Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor. KREISLER Liebesfreud; Liebeslied; Syncopation; Pieces in the Styles of Couperin, Dittersdorf, Boccherini and Cartier. MOZART Violin Concerto No.4, K218. SCHUMANN Abendlied. WAGNER Preislied.
Kreisler in the words of others:
Kreislers quality of performance was always that of a great artist, but the reason why the listener was so captivated and fascinated with his playing was the human quality that he possessed. Everything he did was natural and without any complications. He was so straightforward in his interpretation that he communicated a feeling to each listener that he was playing just for him. It was this intimacy that endeared Kreisler so much to every one in the audience. Fritz Kreislers art was unique and irreplaceable. All of us violinists owe him a debt of gratitude for the great influence he exercised.
Later when I came to know him well, the image never altered or lost any of its original charm. Never a man to achieve anything strain or violence, neither by temperament or inclination, he always decried work as such. Incredibly talented, also as composer as pianist, he lived on the wings of inspiration, impulse, intuition, his heart flowing directly into his fingers from that inexhaustible seam of musical spontaneity
Kreislers sound was organic. It had a breath of life, a combination of his fingers and his feelings. Kreislers sound emanated from an aural conception which motivated whatever came out. He had an easy unforced way of producing tone. He was not very loud but didnt need to be as he had a distinct voice. I remember in particular, the way he played the slow movement of Mozarts concerti, it sounded unbelievably lyrical and the effect was hypnotic – you would hold your breath.
Fritz Kreislers playing appealed to me always because of its human qualities. I felt he always spoke the music rather than played it. I am only sorry that I was never able to listen to Kreisler in person so that I could appreciate his incredibly beautiful tone and experience his uncanny sense of musical timing. His transcriptions and original compositions are equally beautiful and convey the same qualities that are so evident in Kreislers playing.
Once several violinists saw Fritz Kreisler late in life sitting alone on a park bench. They approached him and started a conversation. When they told him they were violinists, he modestly replied, I used to be a violinist. He certainly was.
For me hearing Kreisler was a revelation. His marvelous tonality, sonority and power, his natural phrasing the rhythmic incisiveness of his bowing- all importantly he overwhelmed me. To him I owe my greatest emotional experience and the affirmation of my calling as a violinist. I had the occasion to play Kreislers Guarnerius Del Gesu now kept in the library of Congress in Washington. My violin the Hart Stradivarius needed some minor repairs and I had left it with Sacconi in New York. Kreisler generously lent me his violin for several months and thus I had the opportunity to record the Brahms Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra on his violin. My Friend Robert Casadesus came to a rehearsal and without knowing that I was playing Kreislers violin said to me, How curious- today you sound like Kreisler! Thus instruments do keep a little of the soul of whomever has played it.
“Those of us who heard Kreisler will never forget his sound and that special caress of his for his note and for the phrase. You may not have agreed with the interpretation or musical approach, but that didnt matter. What mattered was his life-long love affair with making music and the fact that for him it was the most natural way to express oneself in a civilized manner with other civilized people.”
This article is dedicated to my Dad – who, having already had the chance to listen to all the other violinists mentioned in this article, says his greatest wish was to have listened to Kreisler “live”.
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