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8.110969-71 - BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas (Complete) (Kreisler) (1935-1936)

Great Violinists • Fritz Kreisler

Great Violinists • Fritz Kreisler

Beethoven: Complete Violin Sonatas

The idea of presenting a complete cycle of Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas in the concert hall did not occur to violinists of the nineteenth century. Their recital programmes were arranged for the maximum of contrast and variety, with carefully chosen opening and closing pieces for each half, and would never include more than one sonata. If it was a Beethoven sonata, nine times out of ten it would be the Kreutzer. Early in the twentieth century some of the more serious artists began to rebel against this kind of programming. The pianist Artur Schnabel performed sonata cycles with such violinists as Carl Flesch and Bronislaw Huberman. The violinist Adolf Busch gave cycles first with his brother Fritz and then with his future son-in-law Rudolf Serkin; indeed, from 1929 the Busch/Serkin duo played all their sonata repertoire from memory. In the 1930s such fine duos as the Belgian pairing of Alfred Dubois and Marcel Maas, and the Polish/Hungarian combination of Szymon Goldberg and Lili Kraus, came to the fore. By then some excellent recordings of individual sonatas were available, including one of the ‘little G major’, Op. 30 No. 3, by the starry duo of Fritz Kreisler and Sergey Rachmaninov. The idea of getting Kreisler to record a complete cycle came from Fred Gaisberg, the American-born recording pioneer who invented the profession of record producer, and has not yet been equalled in the rôle. The London-based Gaisberg, who decided the recording policy of His Master’s Voice and its affiliates worldwide, worshipped the ground Kreisler walked on and was always trying to get him into the studio. By 1934 HMV had hit on the idea of ‘Society’ issues: for large-scale projects, subscriptions were sought and record buyers who were interested became members of a society formed specially for that particular project. The twelve-inch 78rpm records were supplied in handsome albums and Gaisberg calculated that four volumes would be required for the Beethoven Violin Sonatas. Finding a pianist would be a problem, as there was no question of hiring the expensive Rachmaninov, even if his schedule would allow for the necessary number of sessions. But Gaisberg was sure about his choice of violinist.

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, where his violin tutor was the younger Josef Hellmesberger, and made his début at Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary) with the singer Carlotta Patti, sister of Adelina. At ten he won the Conservatory gold medal, was given a three-quarter-size Amati by friends and transferred to the Paris Conservatoire, studying the violin there with Joseph Massart, and composition with Léo Delibes. He met César 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 did two years’ medical training, followed by his military service. In 1896 he decided on music and, after being turned down for a job in the Court Opera Orchestra, began his career as a travelling virtuoso. He toured Russia, met Glazunov, found a wealthy sponsor and gradually advanced himself, getting to know Joachim, Wolf and Schoenberg as well as Brahms. In January 1898 he made his concerto début in Vienna with Bruch’s Concerto in G minor, conducted by Hans Richter, and a year later he had an even greater success when he played Bruch’s Concerto in D minor, Vieuxtemps’s Concerto in 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 Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E minor under Arthur Nikisch. In 1900 he toured America and in 1902 he appeared in London, playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto at the first of Richter’s three concerts and Bruch’s Concerto in G minor at the third. His marriage to Harriet Lies that year was crucial to his career, as she organized and motivated him from then on. In 1904 he was awarded the Philharmonic Society gold medal, in 1911 he gave the first performance of Elgar’s Violin 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 in 1933, he refused to play in Germany any more. His admission in 1935 that many ‘baroque’ pieces in his repertoire were his own compositions caused a public rumpus, as the English critic Ernest Newman took umbrage. After the Anschluss of Austria in 1938, Kreisler took French citizenship, then moved to the United States, becoming a citizen in 1943. His career was more or less ended in 1941, when he was hit by a van while absent-mindedly crossing a New York street. He was in a coma for four weeks, and although he recovered and did not stop playing in public until after the 1949/50 season, he was never the same again. He died in New York on 29th January 1962.

Kreisler was a supremely natural player who could go a whole week without looking at his violin, then pick it up and fiddle as if he had been practising for hours. Part of his special quality stemmed from his hands. ‘He had soft pads on his fingertips, which appeared to be unique’, recalled the Australian violinist Daisy Kennedy. He developed the silvery vibrations of the Franco-Belgian players such as Ysaÿe and 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 admirer was Lionel Tertis, who adapted the Kreisler vibrato to the viola; 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 — an ability he used to create the most delicate effects in the many short pieces in his repertoire. In these delicious trifles, most of them written or arranged by himself, he 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.

It was Kreisler’s custom to work with an accompanist in recitals and he had no regular partner of his own stature, although he gave individual concerts with such fine pianists as Harold Bauer (on one occasion, having played the ‘Kreutzer’ in concert, they exchanged instruments at the party afterwards and played it again, perhaps not quite so well). For the Beethoven project, Kreisler suggested a young pianist from Munich, Franz Rupp. Born in Schongau on 24th February 1901, Rupp (like Bauer and Clara Haskil) began as a violinist but opted for the piano, studying with August Schmidt-Lindner at the Akademie der Tonkunst in Munich from the age of fourteen. He hoped for a solo career but the parlous economic situation in Germany in the early 1920s led him to take the safer route of working as an accompanist. He toured America with the violinist Willy Burmester in 1921 and won the approval of the baritones Heinrich Rehkemper and Heinrich Schlusnus. The latter recommended him to Kreisler, with whom he gave recitals in Germany from 1930. Rupp’s slightly fallible recollection of the genesis of the Beethoven sonata project was: ‘The recordings were begun in 1935. Fritz Kreisler generously suggested me as his piano partner. The Londoners did not think I was big enough, but Kreisler insisted that I be given an opportunity. A sample recording of the "Frühlingssonate" was therefore made at Berlin. It found favour. I was in heaven. What an honour to be associated with Fritz Kreisler! Whenever, in the years following, Kreisler went over to London for an extended period, I would join him to work on the recordings. These were done very carefully. Now, many years later, I am very critical of my effort, but I still believe that from a mechanical standpoint, especially as far as the tone is concerned, the recordings are the best that was ever done on the Beethoven Violin Sonatas by His Master’s Voice or any other concern.’

In truth five sonatas, Op. 23 and all three of Op. 12 as well as the ‘Spring’ referred to by Rupp, were recorded in Berlin at Electrola Studio B from 22nd to 26th February 1935. For some reason the fruits of these sessions were not thought suitable for release; and on 2nd April the two artists began again in Studio 3 at EMI Studios in Abbey Road, London. They went through the sonatas more or less in order and the project was completed in June the following year. Kreisler’s verdict was: ‘Rupp is the born pianist. You just have to be born to it or you haven’t got it. The Beethoven Sonata recordings which I did with him are indeed worthwhile.’ The public has tended to agree, as these recordings have rarely been unavailable since their staggered first release. True, Rupp is just a little lightweight for the more strenuous moments, and Kreisler messes up Beethoven’s offbeat joke in the little Scherzo of the ‘Spring’ Sonata, but there is still much to enjoy in these vintage performances, in particular Kreisler’s confiding, easeful Viennese way with the slow movements. Rupp made other records with Kreisler and in 1935, while this project was still under way, they made a momentous tour of South America, travelling to Rio by Zeppelin. Rupp also made a fine recording of Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet for Telefunken, with members of the Stross Quartet and the great Munich bassist Ludwig Jäger; and he made wonderful records of Lieder with Schlusnus (for DG) and the contralto Sigrid Onegin (for HMV). In 1938 Rupp emigrated to the United States, where he worked and recorded with the cellist Emanuel Feuermann before finding his final soul-mate in the contralto Marian Anderson. Their 25-year association gave rise to many records which are considered classics. From 1965 to 1972 Rupp taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, lecturing on German song and chamber music. He died in New York on 27th May 1992. He worked with other string players, such as William Primrose and the adorable Erica Morini, but always considered Kreisler ‘the greatest violinist I ever heard’.

Tully Potter

Ward Marston

In 1997 Ward Marston was nominated for the Best Historical Album Grammy Award for his production work on BMG’s Fritz Kreisler collection. According to the Chicago Tribune, Marston’s name is ‘synonymous with tender loving care to collectors of historical CDs’. Opera News calls his work ‘revelatory’, and Fanfare deems him ‘miraculous’. In 1996 Ward Marston received the Gramophone award for Historical Vocal Recording of the Year, honouring his production and engineering work on Romophone’s complete recordings of Lucrezia Bori. He also served as re-recording engineer for the Franklin Mint’s Arturo Toscanini issue and BMG’s Sergey Rachmaninov recordings, both winners of the Best Historical Album Grammy. Born blind in 1952, Ward Marston has amassed tens of thousands of opera classical records over the past four decades. Following a stint in radio while a student at Williams College, he became well-known as a reissue producer in 1979, when he restored the earliest known stereo recording made by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1932. In the past, Ward Marston has produced records for a number of major and specialist record companies. Now he is bringing his distinctive sonic vision to bear on recordings released on the Naxos Historical label. Ultimately his goal is to make the music he remasters sound as natural as possible and true to life by ‘lifting the voices’ off his old 78rpm recordings. His aim is to promote the importance of preserving old recordings and make available the works of great musicians who need to be heard.

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