Daily Bow: A Kreisler Tribute

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New CD Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Fritz Kreisler’s Death

Every concert has those little show pieces at the that cap of the evening on light note. Programs packed with heavy-hitters like Brahms sonatas Bach partitas gain a feeling of relaxation when the violinist comes back on stage for just a few more numbers. This category of pieces is a specialty of violinists. While cellists and violist have their fun showpieces, one cannot think of someone like Jascha Heifetz without remember classics like the the Hora Staccato or Wieniawski’s Scherzo Tarantelle.

If there was one violinist, however, who truly embodied the art of the showpiece, it would be Frtiz Kreisler. Violinists today are known for their technical fireworks and powerful sounds. But Kreisler was from a different time. Audiences adored him for his charming, refined style; he had a courtly presence on stage, and other violinists saw him as the living example of Viennese grace. These qualities all showed in his performances of the great concertos, but were most evident in his recordings encores, many of which he composed himself.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kreisler’s death, and Deutsche Grammophon is celebrating with a new CD featuring many encores written, arranged, and performed by the man himself. Other contributing performers include David Oistrakh, Jascha Heifetz, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Ruggiero Ricci, and Gideon Kremer. And while the album celebrates a violinist, it also celebrates a time period, a change in style that redefined violin playing for the 20th century. The famous artists in addition to Kreisler on this album represent a new way of playing which began with Kreisler:

But more than any other aspect of his playing, it was Kreisler’s approach to vibrato that became revolutionary. Before him most players had reserved this left-hand effect for special occasions, as a kind of ornamentation, but Kreisler transformed vibrato into an almost-continuous sonic sheen, a layer of personal warmth that could enhance even rapid passages or those of minor musical interest.

This vibrato rich sound, which Carl Flesch described as “an unrestrained orgy of sinfully seductive sounds,” became the norm for violinists that followed. In encores especially, isn’t it nice to indulge in a little bit of “depravity?” String players owe a whole tradition of playing to Kreisler, and these authentic recordings of his performances give us a glimpse of a man straddling the divide between the romantic and modern eras. While we mourn his death his 50 years, we also celebrate him as a great violinist whose contributions to music live long the years in which he was playing.

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