Being a lover of these two concertos Ė who isnít? Ė
rather than a devotee of historic recordings, I came to this issue with
Itís difficult not to be aware of the awe in which
Kreisler was held, by Elgar, amongst others, and I was looking forward
to hearing for myself this legendary artist in these particular works.
So I was taken aback that the first thing that struck me about the Beethoven
was the soloistís technical fallibility. Intonation is frankly poor
during his first, rising entry, and sour notes in passagework occur
frequently throughout the concerto. In his review of this same disc,
my colleague Jonathan Woolf cites Jacques Thibaud, a friend of the violinist,
who asks "Do you go to concerts to listen to the wrong notes?"
Well, of course the answer is no, but I think one also hopes as far
as possible to avoid hearing them, and the intonation problems
in this performance of the Beethoven are certainly serious enough to
interfere with my listening pleasure.
I know there is an argument, to which I only rarely
subscribe, that todayís musicians have everything in the way of technical
facility but little musical insight or maturity. I searched in vain
for any enlightenment from Kreisler to compensate for the technical
problems. Itís true that in the slow movement he establishes a commendable
atmosphere of calm, but no more than any one of my modern favourites,
and they manage it without the excessive holding on to certain notes,
sliding between others, no doubt features of period style, but, to my
ears at least, intrusive. And the whole concerto is rather pulled about,
an interpretative characteristic with which the young Barbirolli seems
totally in sympathy.
The Mendelssohn fares better, to my ears. It begins
with a momentary difference of opinion about tempo, though: Landon Ronald
sets one tempo in the tiny "on your marks" introduction and
Kreisler sets another, significantly quicker, one. And indeed at several
points, particularly in the first movement, the soloist seems to want
to make the music move forward more than the conductor is expecting.
Intonation is far from impeccable here too, though less problematic
than in the Beethoven. The slow movement, marked andante, also
moves on at a quicker pace than we are used to in more modern performances,
and the reading as a whole seems more under control, less indulgent
than in the earlier work. That said, one or two absolutely magical passages
count for little here: I can hear very little poise as the music slows
down to introduce the second subject of the first movement, and the
wonderful linking passage between the slow movement and the finale displays,
for this listener at least, none of the magic or fantasy I wait for
every time I hear it. The finale is cleanly played but rather bland:
there is neither much wit nor, where required, much fire.
A disappointment for me, then, though I realise that
anyone buying this disc will do so for Kreisler; admirers know already
what to expect and newcomers to his playing may react differently. All
the same, the next time I want to listen to one of these two wonders
it wonít, I think, be Kreisler that Iíll take down from the shelves.
Kyung Wha Chung (with Dutoit) or Milstein (with Abbado) in Mendelssohn,
for example, are two very satisfying readings, and a recent favourite
is Hilary Hahn in Beethoven. But the violinist whose view of these works
seems most completely to reflect what I want to hear is Josef Suk, the
Mendelssohn on an irresistible Supraphon reissue, coupled with Bruch
and Berg and conducted by Ancerl, and a Beethoven concerto of enormous
integrity and poise with Boult on EMI.