Carl Flesch was perhaps one of the most influential violinists of his generation, mainly through his teaching activities. Szymon Goldberg, Ida Haendel, Henryk Szeryng, Josef Hassid, Yfrah Neaman, and Eric Rosenblith were amongst his pupils. Flesch’s scientific approach to teaching, enshrined in his Die Kunst des Violinspiels (Berlin, 1923), set the tone for much subsequent pedagogy. Whilst his artistic ideals saw considerable modification in the later twentieth century, his technical approach remains in many respects the current orthodoxy. His Memoirs gives a wealth of detail on musicians with whom he had dealings. He had little time for preserving reputations (except perhaps his own) and much of his writing provides a colourful counterfoil to other writers’ eulogies to great players of earlier ages. Flesch’s criticisms of Joachim and his teaching in particular may be tinged by an eagerness to establish his own position. Indeed, many aspects of violin playing taken for granted today (including the use of steel strings and the so-called continuous vibrato) owe much to Flesch’s support.
Born in Moson, Hungary to an old and renowned Jewish family, Flesch began playing the violin just before his sixth birthday, receiving his first lessons from a saddler who played at the local church. At ten he was taken to Vienna for two years’ tuition from Adolf Back (Flesch later described this period as ‘lost years’). In 1885 he played to Josef Hellmesberger whose opinion of the young Flesch was somewhat discouraging. He was next heard by Jacob Grün, who recommended him to attend Josef Maxintsak’s class and took him into his own class a year later. At seventeen Flesch left for Paris, joining the Conservatoire under Sauzay and occasionally taking private lessons with Marsick.
In Amsterdam in 1905 he made his first recordings: with the Odeon Company, using a Stroh violin (which had a metal horn to amplify the sound and was designed specifically for acoustic recordings). In 1914, during his first tour of the USA, he recorded over forty sides for Thomas Edison using his own violin.
From 1924 Flesch was head of the violin department at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and also gave private lessons in Baden-Baden. In 1928 he was appointed to the Musikhochschule in Berlin where he taught during the winter months, in summer giving private lessons and courses mainly in Baden-Baden; these were the genesis of the current Baden-Baden Flesch Akademie, formed to perpetuate the tradition. Forced to leave Germany in 1935 by the Nazis, he eventually moved to Lucerne where he gave masterclasses until his death in 1944.
On record, Flesch’s playing is agile, although it is his tone that catches the ear the most: relatively sparing in portamento and laden with a rather heavy and (by modern standards) very slow vibrato. Like many violinists of his day Flesch, despite having a particularly eclectic repertoire, barely varies his style of playing. His 1937 Bach Double Concerto performance with Joseph Szigeti (another exponent of slow and wide vibrato) is very well known and one of the classic performances of this work from the 1930s. His 1929 Fauré Berceuse performance is unusual among his recordings for the extent of its rhythmic flexibility, whilst Dobrowen’s Hebrew Melody (also 1929) reveals an astonishingly intense and powerful tone.
Flesch was also a prolific editor, for example collaborating with duo partner Artur Schnabel in an edition of the Mozart violin sonatas (for Peters) still used by many today.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)
Role: Classical Artist