Like many others of his generation, Kubelík began his career as a violinist under the guidance of his father, an amateur player. His formative years were marked by long hours of practice, coming to fruition as he became widely known as the perfect product of Ševčík’s rigorous training (although the master once famously walked out in the middle of a Paganini concerto performance that Kubelík was giving in his honour!). He was celebrated for his virtuosity, richness of tone and faithful intonation.
Two years after graduating from the Prague Conservatory Kubelík received a hero’s welcome from the London public, playing at Richter’s invitation. Audiences found him as appealing as the likes of Paganini and Paderewski; critics, however, were more circumspect in their reaction, suggesting that he was less a true musician than a technical wizard whose immediate success relied as much upon a powerful marketing machine as anything else. One critic commented on the young virtuoso’s evident delight in overcoming the most challenging technical difficulties, whilst hoping ‘as he grows older he may […] revel equally in unravelling the beauties and depths that lie hidden in [the music of masters such as Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bruch and Brahms]’. The American public similarly appears to have succumbed to the efforts of Kubelík’s publicity team before his arrival there in 1901 and was just as keen to receive him with almost hysterical excitement. Here too the musical cognoscenti were less rapt, a critic of The New York Times dubbing him a ‘fiddle trickster, a mountebank of the jumping bow and sliding finger’. Jacques Thibaud, reported in Marten’s Violin Mastery, was similarly scathing: ‘Ševčík’s purely soulless and mechanical system has undoubtedly produced a number of excellent mechanicians of the violin. But it has just as unquestionably killed real talent. Kubelík—there was a genuinely talented violinist! If he had had another teacher instead of Ševčík he would have been great, for he had great gifts. Even as it was he played well, but I consider him one of Ševčík’s victims.’
During World War I Kubelík removed himself from the concert circuit, turning his attention to composition and producing six violin concertos, a symphony and various chamber works. The subsequent demise of his performing career was certainly hastened by the arrival on the concert scene of Jascha Heifetz and in Kubelík’s various ‘comeback’ performances from the 1920s onwards he seems to have been considered something of a has-been.
Kubelík was amongst the earliest world-class violinists to make solo recordings, initially for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in 1902, then for Fonotipia/Polydor (1905–1910), HMV (1911–1915) and Victor (eight solos in 1917). His 1935 Carnegie Hall concert was also recorded and has been reissued. Gramophone and Typewriter recorded Kubelík and Nellie Melba in 1904: the understated obbligato rôles in Mozart’s ‘L’amero saro costante’ and the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria demonstrate a rather more tender side to his playing with the emphasis on purity of tone and close parity with Melba’s vocal sound. The early Ave Maria recording quickly became a widely accepted classic and was re-recorded twice in 1913, following technological advances. Both 1913 recordings selected here involve more prominence for the violin, with short solos at the start of each piece.
Overall, Kubelík’s recordings are seen, rightly in many ways, as some of the most successful of the early period and his tone is projected well even by basic acoustic technology, although some of his earliest discs are notably more primitive in sound than even acoustic performances of a few years later (his 1905 performance of Bazzini’s La Ronde des lutins being considerably clearer than the 1903 recording of the same work). Technically, as in the case of Heifetz some years later, Kubelík’s playing is astonishingly precise and formidably reliable, Sarasate’s Concert Fantasy on Carmen (1903) being a shining example. Similarly early recordings of elder statesmen such as Joachim and Sarasate show them, on a technical level at least, to be rather past their prime and even (arguably) behind the times in terms of technical accuracy. Kubelík, though, bears witness to the effectiveness of Ševčík’s systematic training and perhaps heralds the dawn of an age in which technical wizardry on a previously undreamt-of scale became the norm rather than the exception. There are reservations to be had, however, similar to those levelled at Heifetz: Kubelík’s playing, as suggested by Thibaud, does perhaps seem a little soulless and almost too efficient. There is a lack of psychological depth to some of the more major works recorded. Raff’s Cavatina is admirably well-drilled with a very lush sound, but it lacks subtlety on a musical level, as does the 1912 arranged excerpt of the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, which has very little in the way of tempo rubato and seems to plod along in a pedestrian fashion.
Kubelík divides opinion quite sharply, some seeing him as a stunning exemplar of the best of playing in the early part of the twentieth century and a portent of later achievements, others viewing him as a remarkable executor but one who failed to plumb the depths of human experience. Either way, he is one of the most important and fascinating musicians in this book.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)