Fritz Kreisler sits high on the pantheon of great violin virtuosos. The first part of his career was closely linked with two important figures in the LSO’s early history. He made his début with the Berlin Philharmonic under Arthur Nikisch’s baton and later joined him on one of his numerous American tours. Such was Elgar’s admiration for Kreisler’s playing that he dedicated his violin concerto to him, choosing him as the man to give its première in 1910. Just six months later, Elgar conducted the LSO’s first performance of the concerto with Kreisler as soloist once again.
Kreisler’s fame and success afforded him access to some of the finest instruments ever made, many of which now bear his name. One of the many instruments he owned was a Guarneri del Gesù that was made in around 1730. He was forced to donate this particular violin to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. because of tax debts. I’m sure he would wince now to see how much this instrument would sell for today! You can watch a video of Nicholas Kitchen playing that Guarneri from where it still resides in the Library of Congress. Unsurprisingly, the Library’s own website glosses over Kreisler’s motives for donating this most prized possession! For the remainder of his career Kreisler played on a particularly fine Bergonzi, on which he made many of his recordings. Another Guarneri once owned by Kreisler is now on extended loan to Nikolaj Znaider, who recorded the Elgar Violin Concerto (with Sir Colin Davis conducting the Dresdner Staatskapelle) on the centenary of its première on the very same instrument Kreisler would have used.
Such was his acclaim as a player, it’s easy to forget that he also wrote some of the most popular pieces in the violin repertoire. He caused a scandal amongst music critics in 1935 when it was revealed that he had falsely attributed many of his own works to the composers in whose style he had written them. Before this revelation he used to attract audiences by claiming that he was performing the ‘lost’ works of composers such as Pugnani, Vivaldi, Couperin and Dittersdorf. Here is one such example of Kreisler’s ‘musical hoaxes’ – his Variations on a Theme by Corelli, which he originally attributed to the Italian baroque composer Giuseppe Tartini, played by David Oistrakh.
Kreisler also composed and published a number of cadenzas. His are the most frequently used for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. In fact, Veronika Eberle used one of Kreisler’s cadenzas when she played the Beethoven with Sir Simon Rattle conducting the LSO on Sunday 1 June.
Below is a recording of Kreisler playing his own ‘Liebesleid’ from 1930 and then another from 1942. He lays it on thick with the vibrato and portamento, yet the clarity of his lines and the rich sweetness of tone is extraordinary throughout (despite the reduced quality of the video). It has been argued that, along with his colleagues, Kreisler was the inventor of continuous vibrato. True or not, this gives a strong indication of how closely associated he is with this expressive style that is now commonplace in today’s concert halls. The level of vibrato he employed may explain to some extent why he was turned down for a post in the Vienna Philharmonic early in his career.
Selected performances by the LSO:
1910 – Elgar’s Violin Concerto (première); Sir Edward Elgar, conductor; Fritz Kreisler, violin (presented by the Royal Philharmonic Society)
1952 – Variations on a theme by Corelli in the style of Tartini; Anthony Collins, conductor
1975 – Violin Concerto in the style of Vivaldi; André Previn, conductor