Kreisler’s 1926-27 Recordings Reissued

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LEMARE (arr. Saenger): Andantino [Moonlight and Roses]. CADMAN (arr. Risland): At Dawning. LEHÁR: “Kreisler” Serenade. Serenade from “Frasquita” (arr. Kreisler). OWEN (arr. Kreisler): Invocation. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (arr. Gordon): Oriental Romance [The Nightingale and the Rose]. TCHAIKOVSKY (arr. Kreisler): Humoresque. RACHMANINOV (arr. Kreisler): Albumblatt, “Daisies.: KREISLER: Caprice Viennois. Liebesfreud. Liebeslied (2 tks). Old German Shepherd’s Madrigal (2 tks). DE FALLA (arr. Kreisler): La Vida Breve: Danza española (2 tks).*+ BRAHMS (arr. Kreisler): Hungarian Dance No. 17.* DEBUSSY (arr. Hartmann): The Girl With the Flaxen Hair.* Petite Suite: En bateau (arr. Choisnel).+ SCOTT (arr. Kreisler): Lotus Land.+ MENDELSSOHN (arr. Kreisler): May Breezes [Songs Without Words, Op. 62 No. 1].+J.S. BACH: Sonata in d min., BWV 1001: Adagio. BERLIN (arr. Kreisler): Blue Skies. FRIML (arr. Kreisler): Dance of the Maidens / Fritz Kreisler, vln; Carl Lamson, *Michael Raucheisen, +Arpád Sándor, pno / Naxos Historical 8.111409

Technically speaking, this album is not available for sale in the U.S. due to copyright restrictions, but as I pointed out in my earlier article, Take This Music…For Free!, the major labels themselves have so compromised their own imposed rules by allowing their recordings to be streamed (on YouTube and Spotify) and even downloaded (on Freegal and other sites) for free that this restriction is pretty much a farce. And let’s be honest, folks, who besides a few thousand die-hard classical listeners are going to want nearly 100-year-old recordings by Fritz Kreisler anyway?

This album, however, is rather more interesting than the previous releases that only included Kreisler’s American recordings, mostly of his favorite “chestnuts.” Only four pieces on here are by Kreisler himself, the famed Caprice Viennois, Liebesfreud, Liebeslied (two takes) and the seldom-heard Old German Shepherd’s Madrigal, while there is a surprising number of genuine classical gems (Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 17, two takes of de Falla’s Danza españols from La Vida Breve, two pieces by Debussy and the “Adagio” from Bach’s solo violin sonata in d minor) and an even larger number of contemporary pop songs transcribed for the violin. Among these are Moonlight and Roses, At Dawning, Blue Skies and Rudolf Friml’s Dance of the Maidens. Thus we get here, you might say, the good, the bad, and the sappy, and brothers and sisters, let me tell ya, Kreisler was all about sappiness. Luckily, he redeemed himself with serious classical collectors by recording three major sonatas (by Beethoven, Schubert and Grieg) with Sergei Rachmaninov in 1926 (none of which are represented on this CD), the Beethoven  and Mendelssohn Violin Concerti, and in the mid-1930s he became the first violinist to record the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas.

But let’s face it, folks: Fritz Kreisler endeared himself to millions more people than any other famous violinist in history, and even very serious listeners like myself occasionally enjoy listening to his recordings because they’re just so warm and beautiful. A famous Indian guru (I forget his name) once said that he rarely if ever listened to recorded music, but he took great pleasure in listening to Kreisler, and the great trombonist Tommy Dorsey had a 78-rpm album of Kreisler playing his own works in his collection in which the grooves were worn white. On the downside, he made it extremely difficult for more serious violinists who didn’t indulge in folderol to establish themselves as solo concert artists. Heifetz and Menuhin were two of the lucky few to do so; Toscha Seidl, Albert Spaulding, Guila Bustabo and even young Ginette Neveu all struggled to find concert managers because almost no one could complete with Kreisler. In fact, Kreisler was so beloved, and viewed by almost everyone as being completely apolitical, that he was practically the only German or Austrian artist who was allowed to record all through the First World War, even including a recording of the Austrian National Anthem!

Listening to this set, you realize why he was so beloved. It wasn’t just his warmth of tone; Seidl and the older Mischa Elman also had warm tones. It was that touch of Viennese schmaltz that he threw into his playing that made him special, and although the back cover inlay for this set says that “We are indeed fortunate that Fritz Kreisler was still at the peak of his powers when electrical recording arrived in 1925,” the truth is that, insofar as most of this kind of music went, he never really lost his ability to play it. I have a set of records that he made of Caprice Viennois, Tambourin Chinois, Liebesfreud, Liebeslied, Schön Rosmarin and La Gitana with the Victor Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles O’Connell in 1942, and he was still the same old Fritz Kreisler. He didn’t really deteriorate until 1946, when he made his last commercial recordings.

Since everyone hears music differently, I won’t try to impose my tastes on you but just mention the recordings I’d never heard before but enjoyed the most: Franz Lehár’s “Kreisler” Serenade and the “Serenade” from Frasquita, a.k.a. “Haub’ ein blaues Himmelbett” (where was Richard Tauber when you needed him to duet with Kreisler on this? Oh, yeah, signed with Odeon, not HMV!), Tchaikovsky’s Humoresque, the de Falla Danza española (the second take especially), the Brahms Hungarian Dance, the two Debussy pieces (which somehow fit his Viennese style like a glove), Cyril Scott’s strangely haunting Lotus Land and the Bach “Adagio,” surprisingly clean and relatively portamento-free for Kreisler. I could have lived without hearing him play Moonlight and Roses or Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies, as sappy a version as you’ve ever heard in your life. I can even tolerate Al Jolson’s version over this!

A major reason why Kriesler’s recordings have not only survived but still attract listeners, despite their dated sound, is the fact that no one today plays like this. I’m not even sure they’re capable of doing so. I’ve heard at least a dozen “Tribute to Fritz Kreisler” albums, not to mention Kreisler pieces stuck into the middle of other violin recital records, and they just don’t have his schmaltz. In fact, the majority don’t even come close (only James Ehnes does, but his playing is just a smidgen too clean, omitting those little portamenti that made Kreisler Kreisler). But then again, almost no tenors today (except Daniel Behle) come close to the singing style of such 1930s tenors as Joseph Schmidt, Tauber or Helge Rosvaenge, either. They just can’t capture the lilt and swing of the music. It’s not technique, it’s style; that puckish humor Kreisler had in fast passages, his broad but never overdone portamento, the way he could “lean in” to a phrase and make it sound as if he were singing it in his mind while the bow translated his singing into violin tone. It’s just not in most modern violinists to be able to do this. For that matter, it wasn’t in Heifetz, Menuhin or Neveu either, outstanding as they were in their own way. And make no mistake: technically superior than they may have been, all three of those violinists, and dozens of others, secretly or overtly admired what Kreisler could do because he did it so naturally that it was almost like speaking in strings.

Interestingly, Kreisler’s two takes of the Danza española feature two different pianists. The first recording features the great Michael Raucheisen, who also accompanied such famous lieder singers as Leo Slezak and Peter Anders as well as the great cellist Emanuel Feuermann while the later take, for some reason, features Heifetz’ accompanist of the time, Arpád Sándor. Incidentally, despite what one would think was a fierce rivalry, Kreisler and Heifetz were very close friends. There’s a marvelous photo of the two of them in a swimming pool together, Kriesler smiling and the usually stone-faced Heifetz grinning from ear to ear. They really enjoyed each others’ company.

As usual, Ward Marston does a good job of bringing the original sound forward but doesn’t remove nearly as much of the old surface swish and that “powdery” sound of the records as could be done without damaging the sound of his violin. An interesting record, then, with seven or eight pieces of (to me) effluvia on it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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