About this Recording
8.110922 - BACH, J.S. / MOZART: Violin Concertos (Kreisler) (1915-1945)

Of all the great violinists of the past, Fritz Kreisler is perhaps the easiest to listen to. The reason is not far to seek. Not only did Kreisler make a consistently beautiful sound - he had one of the loveliest, yet most individual tones - but he played with a relaxed ease that seemed to invite the listener into the music. Not for him the stressful, tense playing of some of today's soloists. He seemed to have all the time in the world to play each phrase; and that timing was just one aspect of the art which concealed art. Friedrich 'Fritz' Kreisler was born in Vienna on 2nd February 1875, the son of Sigmund Freud's 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 (studying violin with Josef Hellmesberger Jnr, theory with Anton Bruckner) and made his début at Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary). At ten he won the gold medal at the Conservatory, was given a three-quarter-size Amati by friends and transferred to the Paris Conservatoire (violin with Joseph Massart, composition with Leo Delibes). He met Cesar 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 father's profession and completed 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 Brahms, Joachim, Wolf and Schoenberg. In January 1898 he made his concerto début in Vienna with Bruch's G minor, conducted by Hans Richter, and a year later he had an even greater success when he played Bruch's D minor, Vieuxtemps's F sharp minor and Paganini's 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 E minor under Arthur Nikisch. In 1900 he toured America and in 1902 he first appeared in London, with Richter conducting. His marriage to Harriet Lies that year was crucial to his career, as she organized and motivated him. In 1904 he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society's Gold Medal, in 1911 he gave the first performance of the Elgar 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, he refused to play in Germany any more. After the Anschluss of Austria in 1938, he took French citizenship, then moved to United States. In 1941 he was hit by a van while crossing a New York street and was in a coma for four weeks. The accident ended his big-time career, although he remained a much-loved figure in America (taking citizenship in 1943) and did not stop playing until after the 1949/50 season. He died in New York on 29th January 1962.

Part of Kreisler's unique quality stemmed from his hands. 'He had soft pads on his fingertips, which appeared to be unique,' recalled a fellow violinist, the Australian Daisy Kennedy. He developed the silvery vibrato of the Franco-Belgian players such as Ysaÿe and his own teacher 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 of the admirers was the English violist Lionel Tertis, who adapted the Kreisler vibrato to the viola; the Catalan cellist 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; in this way he created the most delicate effects in short pieces. These trifles 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.

Our programme begins with a baroque work and ends with an enjoyable piece of 'mock baroque'. Today the Bach Double Concerto is an icon of our culture but in Kreisler's day it was hardly known. This recording, made in 1915, brought it into hundreds of thousands of homes. Basically there are two ways in which to approach this work: either you find two matching soloists or you go for contrast between two individual 'voices'. Here the latter approach is taken, the Viennese Kreisler being joined by the young Efrem Zimbalist, from the Russian school of Leopold Auer, but the soloists get on so well together that the result is a model of its kind - especially with the light accompaniment, very authentic for its time, of just four players (including, incidentally, Rosario Bourdon who was to become a valued studio conductor). The D major Concerto, K.218, was sadly the only Mozart work Kreisler recorded; this is his second version, set down in the marvellous acoustic of the Kingsway Hall, London. He could make any violin sound like a Stradivarius and the conductor Malcolm Sargent recalled an occasion during these sessions, when Kreisler played violin after violin proffered by members of the London Philharmonic, amazing the owner of each one with the tone he produced from it. In Kreisler's day Paganini's D major Concerto was rarely played complete, most soloists using the version by the German violinist August Wilhelmj which turned the first movement into a mini-concerto on its own. Kreisler provides his own version, along the same lines, which has added interest because he plays his beautifully written cadenza. In his early years Kreisler wrote a number of pastiches of baroque composers. For a long time he passed them off as the work of those composers but in 1935 he admitted his little hoax. To be honest, he could only get away with it because the supposed composers were little known then. Today, when we know so much of Vivaldi's music, we wonder how anyone could ever have mistaken Kreisler's little creation for the real thing. This recording was one of the last that Kreisler made, his style as relaxed and genial as ever.

TulIy Potter

A Note on the Recordings

The present disc contains recordings made over a thirty-year period spanning the acoustical and electrical eras, and features Kreisler's first and last concerto recordings, The Bach "Double" was recorded using the acoustic process, The players were positioned in front of a large, megaphone-like horn in a small studio. The vibrations caught by the horn were transferred to a stylus, which etched the wave patterns of the sound onto a wax master disc. Not much in the way of frequency range could be caught through this method; yet, the clarity and immediacy of the recording is a testament to the skill of the engineers of some 85 years ago. The adoption of electrical recording in 1925 meant that a wider frequency range could now be captured, and that recordings could move out of the studio and into the concert hall. The Mozart and Paganini works were recorded in large venues - still using wax masters, but now having the musical signal amplified electronically. The Paganini in particular is a startlingly realistic recording for its time. There was apparently no attempt to compress the dynamic range through the use of limiters. RCA Victor's inexperience at this time in recording concertos had unexpected side benefits. For once, Kreisler can be heard as he must have sounded in an actual performance in Philadelphia's Academy of Music, not spotlight-miked to appear artificially louder than his supporting forces.

The remake of the Mozart (Kreisler had recorded it earlier in 1924, an acoustic version reissued in Volume 2 of this series, Naxos 8.110921) was done in London's spacious Kingsway Hall. By 1945, however, Kreisler was back in a smaller venue, this time in a private men's club in New York City which was a favourite recording site for RCA in the 1940s, for his final concerto recording.

Mark Obert-Thorn

Mark Obert-Thorn

Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world's 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 performance to be heard with the greatest clarity. There is no over-reverberant 'cathedral sound' in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny brass 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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