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(1845 - 1930)

Hungarian-born Leopold Auer will always be associated with St Petersburg and the last years of the Tsarist regime in Russia (under which he worked for more than half a century), although he was equally influential upon his arrival in the USA. He is known chiefly as a pedagogue, Elman, Heifetz and Zimbalist heading a long list of eminent and celebrated pupils. His famously flexible attitude to style and the need to adapt this to each individual pupil made him a great teacher and, in this respect perhaps, the obverse of Joachim, who taught mainly by example and instilled a regime at the Berlin Hochschule in which all players and teachers were created in his own aesthetic image—a matter criticised by Carl Flesch.

In teaching, Auer was a paradox. His own views on matters of style were deeply entrenched, as many of his writings display, and incline towards established central-European attitudes very similar to the classical ideals of Spohr, David and Joachim. In his Violin Playing as I Teach It (1921) Auer is particularly outspoken regarding overuse of vibrato at a time when this was becoming all-pervasive. His pupils, however, came to epitomise the modern age and the new twentieth-century sound. Heifetz in particular set new standards of virtuosity and immaculate execution wedded inextricably to this new style: continuous vibrato, economical use of portamento and a general strictness in rhythm and tempo.

The explanation for this apparent conundrum appears to be that most of Auer’s pupils came to him in an already finished technical state, his rôle being to develop their artistic sensibilities. His apparent inability to create in others a comparable aesthetic to his own was thus a sign of strength: for it is historically self-evident that many of his pupils became very successful and powerful voices in their own right, whilst many of Joachim’s pupils, by contrast, either remained under his shadow (as was the case with Karl Klingler) or failed in other ways to develop into such ‘household names’.

Hearing Auer play is thus tremendously significant for understanding him as a musical figure. His two recordings, made when he was seventy-six years of age, belong to a surprisingly vibrant and productive twilight period of his life. Vacating St Petersburg in emergency circumstances, Auer had left practically everything he owned in a country gripped by revolutionary fervour and to which he never returned. As a result he was forced to teach and perform copiously in old age. He put his name to a long list of editions and publications at the same time, although there is some doubt over the extent to which they reflect his own outlook.

His playing is surprisingly vivid and, given the physical impediment of his quite small and inflexible hands (which caused unfavourable comparison with Wieniawski), he proves an agile player. His performance of the Brahms–Joachim Hungarian Dance No. 1 is taken at a smart tempo and includes improvised rapid ascending arpeggios at the ends of phrases: it shows, as with Joachim’s playing, a familiarity with this ‘gypsy’ material gained, perhaps, in his youth. Auer’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Mélodie is exquisite and attests to his long experience in Russia and close association with composers such as Taneyev, Arensky and, of course, Tchaikovsky himself. In a sound world comparable to Joachim’s, with a sparing, narrow vibrato, a flexible attitude to rhythm and tempo and a discerning but frequent employment of portamento, Auer’s playing of this piece is an essay in phrasing and subtle, fastidious musicianship. No phrase is rendered the same way twice, all admitting minute differences of vibrato and of portamento speed and location. Notwithstanding the primitive acoustic sound, Auer’s playing is truly superb. It is a fitting testimony to one of the most important and enduring of nineteenth-century violinists, who also enabled and encouraged so many who were to mould the course of twentieth-century string playing.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)

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