Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, March 2011

Poor George Hightower. It wasn’t enough that he overcame the stigma of being a mulatto in white European society, fighting with his extraordinary, fiery talent to become one of the leading classical violinists of his age. He had to be ignored by history as well when Beethoven, after writing his most emotionally intense violin sonata expressly for him (and overseeing its premiere, at a public morning performance for friends), had a bitter argument and falling-out with him when Hightower inadvertently alluded to the sexy character of a woman admired by both men. Incensed, the composer changed the dedication to Kreutzer, an elegant French violinist he had known and admired since 1798, but the sonata was so emotionally charged, so full of pizzicato and spiccato effects that were simply not in Kreutzer’s aesthetic arsenal, that Kreutzer not only didn’t know of the dedication at first but never played the sonata.

These three late concertos, written in the 1810s, give as good an indication of any why Kreutzer admired Beethoven without moving outside his comfort level as a musician. Though they use a Beethoven-sized orchestra and a certain amount of drama in the orchestral passages, the solo violin part is all legato elegance. According to admirers, Kreutzer never took the bow off the strings, therefore his entire style is based around legato phrasing. Not much in the “Kreutzer” Sonata bears much resemblance to the kind of style called for here.

Some of this music, particularly in the minor-key concertos, is quite interesting, but it invariably softens into French lyricism—not a bad thing, but not consistently interesting, and always moving away from dramatic outbursts toward a sort of beau élégance not always in keeping with the way the concertos begin. I find this music interesting, certainly not without value, particularly for a violinist who wants to work on his or her legato phrasing, but in the long run not something I want to keep in my collection. Axel Strauss’s playing (I’m not sure if it’s on a period instrument, but he most certainly uses some vibrato in his tone) is bright, generally sweet, and misses none of the music’s nuances. His phrasing and lilt are a joy to hear. Andrew Mogrelia conducts the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra with drama and style, but the inevitable softening of the musical material is even more obvious for this. I would certainly enjoy hearing any of these concertos once every few years in a live concert, but unless you’re a violinist yourself you may want to sample this disc before you buy it. Is it possible to give a CD one thumb up?

Robert Maxham
Fanfare, March 2011

From a position of relative neglect (only his 40 studies for violin remained really active in the repertoire), Rodolphe Kreutzer has risen to greater prominence with recordings of his studies (by Elizabeth Wallfisch, cpo 999901, Fanfare 32:5) and concertos (No. 19 in D Minor, No. 18 in E Minor, and No. 15 in A Major, with violinist Laurent Albrecht Breuninger and Alun Francis conducting the SWR Radio Orchestra Kaiserlautern, on cpo 777188, Fanfare 33:6; and No. 9 in E Minor, No. 13 in D Major, the Variations on “Nel cor più non mi sento,” and Montanyas Regaladas, with violinist Saskia Lethiec and José Ferreira Lobo conducting the Orquestra do Norte, Porto, and the Versailles Conservatory Instrumental Ensemble, Talent 2911 126, Fanfare 33:1) now being frequently issued. In fact, Breuninger’s recording included Kreutzer’s last two concertos, the 18th and 19th, which Axel Strauss now offers along with the roughly contemporaneous 17th.

The slow movement of Kreutzer’s 17th concerto provides ample—and poignant—melodic relief from the bold thematic statements and technical passagework that mark much of its first movement. If Giovanni Battista Viotti, who’s often linked with Kreutzer (the French “Viotti-Rode-Kreutzer Concerto”) introduced Haydn’s symphonic orchestration into the violin concerto’s armamentarium, Kreutzer approached the sound of Beethoven’s orchestra, as Bruce R. Schueneman’s notes point out. But Kreutzer kept the violin at the forefront, a position that Axel Strauss and his 1845 J.F. Pressenda violin commandingly occupy. He’s snappy and alert in the passagework, as well, delivering impressive barrages of double-stops and sharply characterizing, both stylistically and rhythmically, the Rondo finale’s thematic material. And, as in the first movement’s second theme, he imparts an almost nostalgic sweetness to his reading of the second movement. Those who expect a clone of Viotti’s more familiar concertos (a greater number of them have remained in print) may be pleasantly surprised by Kreutzer’s inventiveness and keen ear for orchestral timbres.

The 18th and 19th concertos begin with Moderato movements, both almost double the length of the six-odd-minute affair that opens the 17th Concerto. As does the 17th, the 18th begins with a movement that explores the passagework, notably in double-stops, that must have stood near the avant garde of violinists’ technical capabilities at the time Kreutzer wrote it; although hardly a virtuoso vehicle in today’s terms, it exploits the instrument’s idiomatic possibilities with a canniness that the trailblazing composers of the era seemed to possess in abundance (else, how could the violin have achieved the prominence it did?), presenting them in the context of dramatic orchestral statements and barnstorming tuttis. Strauss hardly plays this work, or the 17th Concerto, for that matter, dismissively, as many might do (hear how seriously he takes the recitative passages in the middle of the first movement); perhaps the sense of history developed by period instrumentalists has opened the eyes even of world-weary and everything-but-masterpiece-disdaining conservatory students to the merits of compositions like this one. Strauss once again brings a plausible plaintiveness to the second movement with its melody flowing over a light accompaniment and an exuberant if dignified vitality to the final Rondo. Like the first movement of the 17th Concerto, that of the 19th (which Schueneman cites Boris Schwarz as considering, with Viotti’s celebrated 22nd, as one of the outstanding examples of the French Violin Concerto—Joachim admired these two concertos as well, placing Viotti’s just after Beethoven’s and ahead of Mendelssohn’s and Brahms’s) develops the contrast between the lyrical and the dramatic, which continues, in its way, into the second movement, while the finale provides the usual good-natured conclusion (often, as here, with the principal theme in dotted rhythms).

Those who consider Kreutzer’s studies mere drudgery that a violinist has to endure on the way to the Paganini caprices should discover in these concertos, as well as in the others that have been recorded, a composer of unsuspected talent, even one worthy of Beethoven’s dedication of the famous Ninth Sonata. The engineers have placed the violin in the forefront of the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra, which plays with vibrant and sonorous enthusiasm. Strongly recommended.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, February 2011

Record companies have been turning their attention to Kreutzer’s last concertos for the violin. In fact there has been a small renaissance in discs devoted to the powerhouse Parisian violin school of late, and Kreutzer, Baillot and Rode have all received recordings. Long may that continue, for though some of these works are of pedagogic interest only, and will be far less amenable to more popular taste, the concertos of Kreutzer, for example, are part of the solo mainstream, even if they have seldom been played in concert and recorded.

The G major concerto, No.17, opens with a bright, panache-centred Maestoso. Its slow movement is an aria of marvellously warm textures and instinctive control of lyric material, including coloratura-cadential excellence. Kreutzer unleashes a vibrant Bolero to conclude the concerto. No. 19 in D minor has a deal of quasi-operatic patina in its orchestral introduction. There are plenty of contrasts, and overt virtuosity is a given considering the panache with which violin virtuosos of their time paraded their own strengths in this arena. The slow movement is rather conventional; it’s more of an Intermezzo than the announced Andante sostenuto, and the finale drives the soloist through the hoops of technical display with a modicum of lyricism thrown in.

The Eighteenth concerto is also laid out well with plenty of decisive material; note the orchestral pizzicati in the first movement supporting a pirouetting and interrogative solo violin line, for example. The slow movement here is more convincing than in the Nineteenth—it’s an aria-like cantabile, and the dynamic variance attests to the performers’ sensitivity to its charms. The finale harkens back slightly to Mozartian models as filtered through the emergent new French school.

…Axel Strauss…plays with directness and tonal vibrancy.

Steven J Haller
American Record Guide, January 2011

Irony abounds in musical history, perhaps nowhere so deliciously as in the facility with which great musical trends cross national lines. If you have already skimmed the Overview in this issue, you know that for all practical purposes French opera began with the German Meyerbeer while Italian opera in many ways began with the Bavarian Johann Simon Mayr. In just such a roundabout manner we may trace the French violin school to the Italian Giovanni Battista Viotti, whose students at the Paris Conservatoire—Pierre Rode, Rodolphe Kreutzer, and Pierre Baillot—all expanded on the stylistic principles set down by their master, most notably a singing line coupled with an assertive, even martial stance for the opening movement and a rondo finale often in the manner of a polonaise or other popular dance of the time. We may still look forward to a sampling of Baillot’s oeuvre from Naxos; in the meantime it’s a pleasure to welcome this new program of Rodolphe Kreutzer’s last three violin concertos to place alongside the three by Pierre Rode (Naxos 8.570469) ( review - May/June 2009).

Rodolphe Kreutzer—no relation to the German Konradin Kreutzer, who wrote Das Nachtlager von Granada—was born in Versailles in 1766 and soon after his studies with Anton Stamitz was appointed by Marie Antoinette as first violinist at the royal chapel, where his exceptional talent caught the attention of Viotti. But as a foreigner Viotti was forced to flee Paris when the Revolution broke out, and when the dust settled Kreutzer was a Professeur of the Conservatoire and soon after became Maître de Chapelle to Louis XVIII in 1815 and music director of the Paris Opera from 1824 to 1826, serving on the advisory board of the Conservatoire until he died in 1831. Yet he by no means relied on the violin, creating a considerable number of works for the stage ranging from operas de circonstance that glorified Revolutionary ideals to more ambitious attempts at grand opera—none of them staged today, all put in the shade by his works for the violin. Every violinist is obliged to study the 42 Etudes (Mar/Apr 2009). The Kreutzer Sonata was written for him by Beethoven, but he never played it and called it “unplayable”.

We covered a CPO program of three Kreutzer concertos—including two of these—from Laurent Albrecht Breuninger and the Southwest German Radio Orchestra directed by Alun Francis in May/June 2010. But it’s no competition at all. Breuninger adopts tempos very close to Axel Strauss for the most part, but there the similarity ends; I found his stratospheric high end way too piercing in short doses, and in toto tiring to the ear: the three concertos heard one after the other simply melted into one long shrill sound—no warmth, no mid-range. With Strauss it’s like I was hearing them for the very first time (I was in the case of 17) and they fell on the ear like the fresh and inviting discoveries they surely will be to most listeners. German-born Axel Strauss looks barely old enough to be entering college in the Naxos photo, yet since migrating to this country he has compiled an impressive resume both with orchestras nationwide and in the recital hall and currently serves as Professor of Violin at the San Francisco Conservatory— who clearly are blessed with an orchestra of the absolute top rank that does their leader proud. The occasional emphatic touches— most of all from the timpanist, who does get carried away sometimes—are both quite understandable and entirely in keeping from these excellent young musicians who relish the opportunity to play this robust fare. Their full-blooded playing is handily matched by Professor Strauss, whose rich, warm sound is worlds apart from Breuninger’s shrill posturing.

There seems little point in going into great detail on each of the concertos; these are splendid examples of the French violin school, set forth wonderfully well by performers and engineers.

David Milsom
The Strad, January 2011

Kreutzer’s place in violin pedagogy is well known, and listeners to these concertos can entertain themselves by spotting melodies from his famous 42 Etudes of 1802. Nonetheless, these are fully formed works in their own rights. The 17th, with its bolero finale, is perhaps weaker than the others, but listeners need to align themselves with Kreutzer’s languid writing—a style of proto-Romanticism with which many are likely to be relatively unfamiliar.

Axel Strauss, the first German violinist to win the Naumberg Violin Award in New York, in 1998, performs with great vitality—the finale of Concerto no.17 is particularly neatly accentuated, while chains of up-bow staccatos in the first movement of no.18 are beautifully judged. In the many cantabile passages, such as the slow movement of no.17, Strauss performs cleanly with an uncluttered sound that suits these works well. Although equally capable of dark hues, as in the elevated opening to no.18, Strauss performs E-string material with a clean and pure tone, and with a suitably chaste vibrato. All of this is conveyed beautifully by Naxos in a finely balanced recording, while the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra is equally fastidious and yet suitably lively. This is an excellent recording by any standards.

James Manheim, January 2011

The name of the French virtuoso-composer Rodolphe Kreutzer remains best known for the dedication of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 in A minor, Op. 47, and for the grimly fundamentalist Leo Tolstoy novel named for that work. The CD booklet notes (in English and French) by Bruce R. Schuenemann for this Naxos release tell more about Kreutzer and include the entertaining sidelight that Kreutzer probably never performed Beethoven’s sonata, which was unsuitable to his style. Nevertheless, these concertos, the last three Kreutzer wrote (they date from 1806 or later), show the influence of Beethoven, and they’re quite attractive works. Virtuosity is matched to structure in the outer movements, with double-stopping and the like reserved for significant thematic junctions; there is little in the way of Paganini-like fireworks. The slow movements, beginning with unison or simply chordal statements like Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, have long, serious melodies. For sheer musical interest these pieces outdo the concertos of Kreutzer’s contemporary Viotti, which are more often heard, and San Francisco—based violinist Axel Strauss, with the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra, offer lyrical performances that bring out the best early-Romantic qualities in the music. The disc inaugurates a series of Kreutzer discs from the same forces, and one looks forward to hearing more music from this famous-named but largely forgotten composer.

Michelle Dulak Thomson
San Francisco Classical Voice, December 2010

The composer names that loom large in the minds of musicians aren’t always the ones the listening public knows well. Czerny and Burgmüller are names that pianists know, but classical piano listeners might not. In the same way, Rodolphe Kreutzer and Pierre Rode and Giovanni Battista Viotti are pretty much off the public’s radar, but very much on the violin student’s—the first two for volumes of studies that are obligatory, the last for a pair of concertos that are nearly likewise.

But this is all as study material, not for public performance (Viotti’s 22nd Concerto makes the very occasional appearance in public—an odd fate for a piece that Johannes Brahms admired).

We have the odd circumstance of a respected bunch of violinist-composers (Vivaldi, Locatelli, Tartini) who get programmed, another much later bunch (Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, Ernst, Ysaÿe, and a number of others) who also get programmed, and, really, only Paganini in between. I think the gap has to do with the early-19th-century violinist-composers devoting themselves so much to pedagogy. No one really wants to show off with a concerto written by the guy whose études everyone is forced to work through.

Which is why Axel Strauss’ latest Naxos CD is so valuable. The one before merely (merely!) showed what music could be made out of Pierre Rode’s solo violin caprices. But those are familiar material, if only to violin students. This time, he takes on Kreutzer, but not the 42 Caprices in every violinist’s case pocket; here we have three violin concertos (the three last, we’re told), accompanied by the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra under Andrew Mogrelia.

Strauss is fantastic here. The two things that stand out are the incredible nimbleness in both hands and the utterly lovely cantabile. Every dotted rhythm (and they’re all over the place) is perfectly pointed, and every melodic line is shaped and caressed as though Strauss were singing it. Plus, there are all those incredibly finicky little bits of filigree that were the violinist-composer’s stock in trade for at least a couple of generations. If you smudge anything in such a passage, it’s dead. Strauss doesn’t; what’s more, he gives the impression that you could make him play it 20 times over and it would always be that clean.

The thing is, he has much to be fantastic about. Kreutzer wrote this music for his own use, and in the hands of anyone who can play like Strauss, it’s much more than useful; it’s full of beauties and, indeed, drama. The singing lines really do sing; the dances (the 17th Concerto ends with a dramatic Boléro) really do dance; and the orchestral introductions really do introduce, at length and with intelligence.

The one small disappointment is the Conservatory Orchestra. The winds are magnificent, but the strings—how to put it?—sound like they are accompanying even when they aren’t. I would’ve hoped that some of Strauss’ subtlety of inflection (he leaves nothing alone, regards no note as unimportant) had rubbed off in the sessions, but the strings—tight, in tune, and stylish as they are—don’t treat the music anything like as seriously as their soloist does. It is all rather generic. Too bad.

Naxos apparently intends to record the rest of the Kreutzer concertos, though it has not announced with whom. Here’s hoping for more Strauss; but if there are other interested violinists who can play like that, here’s waiting, in any case, for more Kreutzer.

Stephen Smoliar, December 2010

The greatest misfortune for violinist and composer Rodolphe Kreutzer is that Ludwig van Beethoven dedicated his Opus 47 violin sonata in A major to him. It is unclear how it came to be known as the “Kreutzer Sonata;” but the name struck strongly enough to be appropriated by Leo Tolstoy for a novella (whose plot line incorporates a performance of Beethoven’s sonata), which, in turn, inspired the first string quartet by Leoš Janáček. Ironically, Kreutzer himself apparently never played Beethoven’s sonata. According to a Baron de Tremont,

…Kreutzer played all his passages legato, and always kept his bow on the string; now, this piece [Beethoven’s sonata] is all in staccato and sautillé [off the string]—and so Kreutzer never played it.

As a result most of the world today recognizes Kreutzer’s name only for its association with Beethoven’s sonata.

A recent Naxos CD of the last three violin concertos that Kreutzer himself composed (he composed a total of nineteen) is a noble effort to bring attention back to Kreutzer himself. At the very least those concertos certainly lend credibility to Tremont’s observation (reported in the booklet notes by Bruce R. Schueneman) about Kreutzer’s fixation with legato. Indeed, that fixation is so strong that, while there is considerable virtuosity in the violin parts for all three concertos, there is also a good deal of uniformity across all that virtuosity. Even Schueneman, who gives his best shot at promoting these compositions, finally concedes that the final movement of the eighteenth concerto is a “rondo tune with more lyrical sections and the usual passage-work.”

That pretty much sums up the entire recording. Both the solo and orchestral parts abound with that “usual passage-work;” and one comes away from listening to these three concertos with a sense that the judgment of history can get it right at least some of the time. The good news is that, while the music itself may be lacking in that intimate connection between invention and execution that can be admired even in Antonio Vivaldi’s myriad concertos, the performance by violinist Axel Strauss with Andrew Mogrelia conducting the San Francisco Conservatory orchestra is so elegant that one can find much to listen to strictly in the technique of execution.

Strauss has never been shy about venturing into unfamiliar regions of repertoire. As was recently reported, his current project with Naxos involves recording all of the compositions by George Enescu for violin and piano. Having heard him perform frequently at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he is a member of the Violin Faculty, I have never known him to short-change a composition that he has committed himself to perform; and I cannot imagine another violinist serving as a better advocate for Kreutzer. Mogrelia, for his part, always seemed to have selected tempos that would move the music forward at an acceptable clip. At the very least this tended to blunt the rather abrupt endings that conclude just about all nine movements on the CD. (Each concerto follows pretty much consistently the same three-movement pattern.) Basically, Mogrelia figured out how to provide a sufficiently spirited execution of those movement that would elicit a committed performance from the students in the Orchestra while balancing perfectly against the polished legato of Strauss’ solo lines.

To conclude on a slightly whimsical note, I could not help but notice that this CD from the Conservatory, like the one examined yesterday featuring David Tanenbaum from the Guitar Faculty, featured a composer whose last name begins with the letter K. (Yesterday it was Aaron Jay Kernis.) If the Conservatory plans to continue recording projects with Naxos, perhaps they would consider some other composers with the same initial, who are just as worthy of consideration. After all a suite for two violins, cello, and piano left hand, which was a high point in the series of end-of-term String and Piano Chamber Music recitals, was a seldom-heard composition (Opus 23) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold that has been recorded at least once but still deserves more exposure than it has received thus far. Then there is Charles Koechlin, who seems to receive more attention for his skills in orchestration than for his original compositions. Then, of course, there is Mauricio Kagel, whose tape music will be performed on January 7 at the first concert of The San Francisco Tape Music Festival, but who was also a prolific composer of instrumental and vocal music. Personally, I would give anything to hear his Sankt-Bach-Passion and would be delighted if the Conservatory had a “critical mass” of performers who share my excitement!

Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, December 2010

Bargain of the Month

Rodolphe Kreutzer was a name completely new to me before this disc. Well, not completely: there is Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” sonata, dedicated to Rodolphe, who refused to play it because, as a matter of personal philosophy, he never played staccato notes. These concertos are just the kind of genial, pleasing works one would expect from a violinist who took that view. Kreutzer’s are some of the best violin concertos from the “French school” of the late classical era. They have the virtues of brevity, simple scoring, appealing tunes, utterly wonderful violin writing, and a genial, generous sense of heart. I’ll be honest: I love this budget price CD.

The Concerto No. 17 in G is a sunny work dotted with wind solos; the orchestra gets only a minute to itself before the violin breaks in and starts singing its heart out. The finale is the standout movement here: it’s a toe-tapper of a movement - a Spanish boléro, apparently - in which the violin’s big tune comes over dancing orchestral strings. Granted, there is nothing in the concerto which challenges the ear, but only because it is so effortlessly pleasing. This is music to reach for on a sunny morning, or a morning you wish were sunny, or when you are about to sit down to pay the bills and want something cheerier playing in the background.

No. 18 in E minor tries to keep a straight face for a while, but before even a minute has passed Kreutzer lets his guard down and smiles at us for a moment. Then the full tutti of the opening returns to clear the way for the violin’s melancholic entry with its own secretive theme. That poetic entry is one of the really distinctive moments in the concerto; the other comes when the first movement’s development gives way to a dark, dramatic grave passage from 8:28 to 9:35.

No. 19 is a game attempt at a cyclical work; the slow movement presents as its main tune a major-key variation on the dramatic D minor subject which gets the first movement off to an eye-opening start. More importantly, though, it is the best concerto on the disc. The striking themes in the first movement fight for the violinist’s affections; the andante is beautiful and includes a wonderfully done cadenza, vindicating my belief that cadenzas in slow movements are a very good idea.

Axel Strauss is a great soloist for this music, with the kind of generous romantic heart and full-bodied tone needed to adhere to Kreutzer’s style. Remember, this was a composer who, according to the liner-notes, played everything legato and refused to touch music, like Beethoven’s, which demanded otherwise. Strauss sounds completely at home, and he especially distinguishes himself at moments like the tender entrance of the violin in No. 18 and the cadenza in No. 19’s slow movement. The San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra, a student group, occasionally sound a little thin in the violins - especially at the beginning of No. 17 - but are more than adequate in every other department. They are yet another proof, alongside the orchestras of the Shepherd School (Rice University, Texas) and Frost School (University of Miami, Florida), that the ensembles of major American conservatories maintain staggeringly high standards. Andrew Mogrelia is a sensitive conductor whose considerable experience as an accompanist is to the disc’s benefit. The sound quality is very good; Axel Strauss is at the forefront, but not to the detriment of the orchestra.

There is another disc of Kreutzer’s concertos available at present, a CPO album featuring violinist Albrecht Breuninger. That recording received some positive reviews, including a tentative recommendation on this site, but I unfortunately have not heard it. Perhaps it is a logical next step - though this Naxos CD is the beginning of a complete cycle. Kreutzer’s music is all about lyricism, purity of tone, and beauty of expression, and the only challenge it poses lies in trying to turn the CD player off, especially given as sympathetic a friend as Axel Strauss. If you love the violin, or have enjoyed the string concertos of Mozart, Haydn, Viotti, or Pierre Rode, you will find yourself, like me, eagerly awaiting the rest of this promising series.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, December 2010

This is the first of a planned series of all Kreutzer’s Violin Concertos, beginning with the acknowledged masterpieces. These are attractive and tuneful works—just don’t compare them with Mozart or Beethoven—and the performances and recording make the listening experience thoroughly enjoyable. Axel Strauss has already made successful recordings of the solo Caprices of Pierre Rode and Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte for Naxos and Andrew Mogrelia seems to make a speciality of conducting ballets and violin concertos for the label. They work here with the very capable orchestra of the San Francisco Conservatory, where Strauss has taught since 2001.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, November 2010

A highly admired and successful violinist-composer during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, he actually wrote more operas than instrumental music, although he was prolific in both areas. The excellent and detailed notes by Bruce Schueneman inform us that due to a difference in playing style, it is doubtful that Kreutzer ever performed the Sonata that bears Beethoven’s dedication to him.

Axel Strauss is a superb master of the bow, and the S.F. Conservatory Orchestra led by Andrew Mogrella is as fine an ensemble as one could wish for. It’s good to know that Naxos plans to record all of Kreutzer’s concertos!

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, November 2010

French violinist, teacher, conductor, and composer Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766–1831) obviously favored the violin, having written nineteen violin concertos, mainly for himself to play. Not that he didn’t compose in other genres, as his thirty-nine operas and forty-two études ou caprices for solo violin attest. Beethoven thought so much of Kreutzer as a violin virtuoso he dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major to him. But fame is fleeting; today, one hardly hears about poor old Kreutzer, with only a handful of discs devoted to his music. The folks at Naxos, however, appear ready to rectify that situation, with these final three of Kreutzer’s violin concertos apparently only the beginning of a complete cycle of the man’s violin works. We’ll see. It’s a start.

All three concertos are fairly brief affairs, with No. 17 in G major (premiered in 1806) a mere seventeen minutes long. It begins with a rather regal introduction, followed almost immediately by an impressive turn from the violin. One can tell from the outset that Kreutzer was going to favor the soloist, the modest ensemble work merely serving as a background, almost as an afterthought, for the violin. Whatever, violinist Axel Strauss handles it fluently, with consummate ease, and the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra provide sympathetic support. In the second movement we again get a dramatic opening statement from the players, succeeded by what is practically a violin solo, this time of hushed intensity and quite lovely. The Rondo finale has a pleasant rhythmic thrust and brings the piece to a satisfying close.

Concerto No. 18 in E minor begins more energetically than No. 17, and it allows the orchestra a bit more time to itself before the violin’s entry. Then, when the violin does appear, it’s in a relatively quiet, slightly plaintive mood. Nevertheless, it picks up intensity as it goes along, and Strauss appears to be enjoying himself in the music, playing it with great enthusiasm as well as showmanship. The slow movement speaks with an impassioned tenderness and the finale in a surprisingly impish yet gentle manner, perhaps foreshadowing Paganini’s First Violin Concerto a few years later.

The Violin Concerto No. 19 in D minor strikes one as the most mature of the three concertos on the program, with Mozartian overtones and shades of Don Giovanni. It is both ambitious and stately, with some fine solo passages, as we might expect. It is also the best of the three concertos at integrating the violin into the orchestral framework. So, it rewards on several counts. Again, the work utilizes a mellow slow movement and a sprightly closing section, which Strauss and company exploit to good advantage.

There is nothing about these three Kreutzer concertos that jumps out at one and proclaims them as great music. Still, one can hear artistry in them, and when performed as well as they are here they make for entertaining diversions.

The sound, recorded at the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, San Francisco, California, in January and February of 2009, understandably favors the violin, which is front and center, yet without totally dominating the sonic landscape. The instrument sounds robust and clean, the highest string notes not at all abrasive but vibrantly realistic. The orchestra, spread out behind the soloist, only occasionally comes into their own, yet when they do, the effect is splendid—clear, smooth, dynamic, and well balanced. While the audio is not exactly of audiophile quality, it is quite agreeable to the ear and among Naxos’s best., October 2010

Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766–1831) did intend his violin works to have both depth and scale, and his final three concertos—especially the last two, in E minor and D minor respectively—are impressive. Kreutzer is best known as the dedicatee of Beethoven’s Op. 47 sonata for violin and piano, but he was a considerable violinist in his own right (although he never played Beethoven’s Op. 47 in public), and was also well known as a teacher. He composed a number of stage works, but is best known as a composer for his pieces for violin, which remain largely classical in style even when using a Beethoven-size orchestra. Axel Strauss and Andrew Mogrelia have clearly looked closely at what Kreutzer had to offer, for their recording of his final concertos showcases them impressively. No. 17, in G major, is most interesting for its lyricism in both the first and second movements. No. 18 has an unusual aria-like section marked Grave in the first movement, plus a very expressive central Adagio. No. 19 alternates dramatic and lyrical sections to very fine effect, with a central movement that is stately rather than highly emotional. The weakest movements—although they are still very pleasant—are the finales, which tend to be significantly lighter than much of what has gone before. Kreutzer clearly planned his concertos this way, though, and certainly Strauss and Mogrelia make everything as effective as it can be.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2010

The name of Kreutzer is written on the memory of all violinists, his Etudes part of the staple diet of their education. Born in France in 1766, his studies were mainly directed towards the violin, and he toured extensively in this role, Beethoven listed among his admirers who wrote a sonata that carried his name. It is said he never played it as it contained ‘off the string’ bowing that was not agreeable to him. He was to write a number of violin concertos, the present disc containing the last three. Thematically there is much similarity with Paganini, though as they were contemporaries influences could have been in the opposite direction. They certainly did not share a love of ostentatious virtuosity, Kreutzer presenting challenges of left-hand dexterity in a searching examination of technique. Try the opening of the Eighteenth—an often dramatic and extended movement—to sample his brand of technical brilliance, and, more or less continues from where the finale of the Seventeenth ended. Despite his reluctance to play ‘off the string’, it is liberally applied in his music, the final Rondo of the Seventeenth of spiky excitement. By the time we reach the Eighteenth we recognise they all sound all much the same, but I am not complaining. The German violinist, Axel Strauss, is superb, with intonation right in the centre of every note, while clarity in the most mercurial moments is spotlessly clean. The accompaniments are substantial and lean towards the new musical world that was concurrently being developed by Beethoven. They are played by a student orchestra of exceptional quality from the San Francisco Conservatory. The first disc of the complete Kreutzer concertos—what an enticing prospect!

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group