Naxos’s Historical series continues at a dizzying rate.
They are certainly to be applauded for re-issuing famous existing recordings
at super budget price, as well as unearthing other treasures from the
archives. The present release is particularly valuable, as it is, as
far as I know, the first complete cycle of the Beethoven Violin Sonatas
to be recorded. The fact that it features one of the most influential
musicians of the early 20th Century makes it especially welcome.
The idea of presenting complete cycles of the sonatas
in public did not start with Kreisler, but when the brains behind this
recording, the legendary Fred Gaisberg, wanted to commit the whole cycle
to disc, his choice of fiddler was clear – it had to be Kreisler. The
choice of pianist was more difficult, as Tully Potter’s entertainingly
informative note tells us. Rachmaninov was considered (if only!), but
would have been too expensive. Kreisler had no regular partners of his
own stature, though he did give recitals with the great Harold Bauer,
which would have also been interesting. The team ended up with Franz
Rupp, pretty much unknown in recorded music history, save for this recording.
As it turns out, Rupp’s playing is efficient and professional rather
than truly inspired. He was quite young at the time, and as surprised
as anyone to get so important a job, and whilst his playing does not
seriously undermine the set, it is mouth-watering to imagine what sparks
might have flown if Kreisler had been partnered with a truly great pianist,
as Casals was in his set of the Cello Sonatas with Horszowski.
The chief enjoyment throughout these discs is the playing
of Kreisler himself. His tone is sweet and totally unforced, with elegant
phrasing, lyrically shaped lines and a lack of the sort of indulgent
portamento that I thought would be here in spades. The playing actually
sounds surprisingly modern, and there is a no-nonsense approach to these
works that is refreshingly direct. The early sonatas find Kreisler and
Rupp on their best form. The beautiful theme and variations of the D
major, Op.10 has an eloquence and purity of line that is most fetching.
There is a general refusal to linger in slow movements, which certainly
goes down well with me, and only in some of the bigger sonatas do I
miss an extra dimension. The famous canonic scherzo of the ‘Spring’
sonata is slightly lumpy, not helped by a stodgy basic tempo and a feeling
that the two players slightly disagree over things. The glorious opening
flourish of the ‘Kreutzer’ is well handled by Kreisler, only
to be followed by a rather puny entry from the pianist. My favourite
piece, the final Sonata Op. 96, has its moments, not least the bucolic
finale, where the great violinist is clearly enjoying himself. Even
here, I felt a partner with the same outsize personality might have
created results that were more memorable than they actually are. Still,
the lilting, affectionately Viennese style of violin playing is hugely
enjoyable, and it is a real glimpse of an artist at his peak.
The transfers are wholly successful, with Ward Marston
again performing near miracles of engineering. The violin sound in particular
has enormous presence and clarity, though of course this could be the
player himself! Whatever the case, there is a great deal to enjoy here,
and no serious collector of historic violin performances will want to
be without this set. Its appearance on three very well filled, super-budget
discs makes it a gift which should be snapped up without delay.