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Fritz Kreisler (1875–1962)
Transcriptions for Violin and Piano

Fritz Kreisler was born in Vienna in 1875, the son of a doctor. It was the latter, a keen amateur violinist, who first taught his son the instrument from the age of four. Lessons followed with Jacques Auber and at the age of seven he was able to enter the Vienna Conservatory. There he studied the violin with the younger Joseph Hellmesberger and was instructed in musical theory by Anton Bruckner.

At the age of ten he won the Conservatory Gold Medal. Thereafter he entered the Paris Conservatoire as a pupil of Massart, taking theory lessons from Delibes. Two years later he won the Premier Grand Prix, an honour he shared with four other players, all of them a good ten years older. This success marked the end of his professional training as a violinist.

By the age of fourteen Kreisler had embarked on an international career as a virtuoso, travelling in 1888 to the United States with the pianist Moriz Rosenthal in a concert tour. The following year he returned to Vienna for further schooling and for initial medical training, before his military service. By 1896, however, he had resolved to return to a musical career and although he failed to pass the audition to join the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra, in 1898 he was able to appear with the same players as a soloist and to resume with greater success his international career, with concerts in Berlin, in the United States, in London and elsewhere. In 1910 in London, indeed, he was able to give the first performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, which was dedicated to him.

Wounded during war service in the Austrian army during the early months of the Great War, he was able to devote time to composition, particularly of the short violin pieces for which he is well known. His return to the United States was not at first well received by the public, and in 1924 he settled in Berlin, where he remained based until the annexation of Austria in 1938. In spite of the offer of French citizenship, he returned to the United States, where he continued his career, until an accident forced him to reduce his schedule. He gave his final public concert in 1950, and died in New York in 1962.

Kreisler’s style of playing included an extended use of vibrato, applied to shorter as well as longer notes. His very personal methods of fingering are preserved in the many editions he made of major works in the violin repertoire, while his use of the bow ensured a sweetness of tone that avoided excessive pressure or forced volume. As a composer he provided a number of transcriptions, as well as a series of short compositions attributed by him to lesser known composers of the past. His eventual revelation of the true authorship of these pieces provoked some hostility from critics, who, incredibly, had accepted the original attributions. These popular compositions have all continued in standard repertoire, although the validity of the attributions would hardly convince a modern audience.

The present recording is of transcriptions made by Kreisler, as distinct from his original so-called Classical Manuscripts and his editions under the title Master Works. Included here are, in particular, transcriptions of compositions by Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Dvofiák. The first of these is represented by the Hymn to the Sun 1 from the opera Le Coq d’or (The Golden Cockerel), the composer’s last opera, completed in 1907 and based on a libretto by Vladimir Bel’sky, itself derived from Pushkin, who had had his own source in the work of Washington Irving. In the story, which seems to mock authority in its portrayal of official incompetence, the Hymn to the Sun is sung by the evil Queen of Shemakha, as she sets about the conquest of the ineffectual King Dodon.

The Oriental Dance 2 and Arab Song 5 are taken from Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 symphonic suite Scherherazade based on elements of The Arabian Nights, with its prominent rôle for a solo violin. The Indian Song 12 is taken from the opera Sadko of 1897, in which an Indian trader sings of the riches of his country, before the hero of the opera sets out on his long and varied adventures. The final work included here is a Fantasy on themes from Rimsky-Korsakov, a composer whose technical competence, gradually acquired, had brought him to a leading position as a survivor among the Russian nationalist composers of the ninteteenth century.

Tchaikovsky, unlike Rimsky-Korsakov, who had enjoyed an earlier career as a naval officer, was trained in music at the newly established Conservatory in St Petersburg, going on to teach at the parallel establishment in Moscow, until relieved of duties that he found tedious by the intervention of a generous benefactor. Two of the present transcriptions, the Scherzo 4 and Chant sans paroles 8, are drawn from his Souvenir de Hapsal, a collection of three piano pieces, dedicated in 1867 to Vera Davïdova as a souvenir of a holiday spent with the Davïdovs, the family into which his sister Sasha had married. The Humoresque 6 is also taken from a piano piece by Tchaikovsky, one of two such works from 1871. Tchaikovsky himself arranged the Humoresque for violin and piano in 1877, as his career at the Moscow Conservatory and his brief and ill-considered marriage both came to an end. The well-known Andante cantabile 16 is taken from his String Quartet No.1 in D major of 1871, a slow movement that he later arranged for cello and orchestra and the performance of which by a string orchestra he accepted.

Dvofiak offered a rich source for possible transcription. Included here are the versions of the best known of Dvofiak’s Gypsy Melodies, Songs my mother taught me 3 and of the ubiquitous Humoresque 9. Three of the Slavonic Dances are transcibed 7, 13 and 14, works originally for piano duet. The so-called Slavonic Fantasy 10 draws on Songs my mother taught me and elements of Dvofiak’s Four Romantic Pieces. Dvofiak’s inspiration came largely from his native Bohemia, where he did much to foster national musical traditions. In 1892 he was invited to serve as director of the newly established National Conservatory in New York, positions he held until 1895. The musical result of his stay in America, still essentially Bohemian in character, is heard in two of Kreisler’s transcriptions. The so-called Negro Spiritual Melody 11 is, in fact, the cor anglais theme from the slow movement of Dvofiak’s Symphony ‘From the New World’, a melody that, whatever its original inspiration, later acquired words, elevated to the status of folk-song. The so-called Indian Lament 15 is also from Dvofiak’s American period, the slow movement of his Sonatina for violin and piano, its melody suggested, apparently, at the sight of the Minnehaha Falls, further possible evidence of the composer’s fascination with Longfellow’s Hiawatha.

Keith Anderson

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