Fritz Kreisler was undoubtedly one of the greatest violinists of all time. But I am a firm believer that he might also have been one of the greatest musicians ever. He was always a hero of mine because he had such a beautiful sound and in part perhaps for the legendary tales of his not practicing.
We are all aware of his wonderful compositions and his wonderful violin playing. But while listening to some recordings on Youtube.com, I came to realize that he was an incredible piano player as well. I had always read that he was a capable player but not to this level.
The stories I read show that he really liked playing at parties. Nathan Milstein mentioned seeing Kreisler at a party playing background music. Milstein recounted, “[Kreisler] sat down and played a waltz. Turning to me in delight, he said, “Nathan, this is my life. Here’s what I love: good light music, the divine waltzes of Strauss, Lanner…” And suddenly he began improvising on the theme from the slow movement of Brahms’s violin concerto. I had never heard a more astonishing improvisation in my life! It mixed different styles: Beethoven, and something from the Russian symphonies, and Bierdermeier, all so cleverly crafted that you couldn’t tell from where he too what. I listened in awe, holding my breath.”
Fritz Kreisler plays Heuberger's "Im chambre séparée" or as we violinists know it "Midnight Bells":
His piano-playing ability was apparently well known to other musicians. Paderewski once stated, “I’d be starving if Fritz had taken up the piano, How beautifully he plays!”
The Strad Magazine dedicated a full issue to him on the 25th anniversary of his death. Glowing tributes with reminiscences from many of the greats of the 20th century. Louis Kaufman was at a chamber music party where he often played with Kreisler. George Gershwin was at the party because of his genuine love of chamber music. After the chamber music, Gershwin was asked to play some of his popular songs to which he gladly obliged. After he finished Gershwin turned to Kreisler and asked “would you please play some of your lovely tunes from Apple Blossoms (Kreisler’s musical operetta which was a hit on Broadway).” I’m not sure I would have had the audacity to play after Gershwin.
According to Kaufman “Kreisler played with the same engaging charm and beauty of tone on the piano as he did on the violin. There can be few great pianists who would not have envied his singing and expressive legato on the piano.”
As a child Oscar Shumsky had the opportunity to play with Kreisler the pianist. Kreisler did not look at the score and “recomposed” the accompaniments on the spot. They contained new harmonizations and countermelodies.
In Efrem Zimbalist memoirs he told some interesting stories as well. Zimbalist was the only violinist to have recorded with Kreisler. They recorded the Bach Double Concerto. Heifetz, Zimbalist and Kreisler partook in a novel competition. Each would play a movement of Mendelssohn and then accompany the other. Zimbalist accompanied Kreisler in the first movement, Heifetz accompanied Zimbalist in the second and Kreisler accompanied Heifetz in the last movement. Kreisler was the best pianist of the bunch.
Oh to have been at those parties…..
Heifetz was a huge Kreisler fan. The eleven year old Heifetz (who shared the same birthday February 2nd) was accompanied by Kreisler. After hearing the lad play, Kreisler turned to the assembled people and said "We might as well take our fiddles and break them across our knees."[
Out of reverence for the master, Heifetz kept a signed Kreisler program in his studio at USC and rarely played Kreisler pieces in public. He did in private and could do a spot on impression, even once fooling Kreisler to think that he was listening to an old record!
Heifetz was no slouch at the piano....here he is accompanying Carol Sindell during his masterclass
RCA looked at recording Kreisler as a pianist because of his ability on the piano. We are fortunate that one of the test pressings survived.
Kreisler playing Dvorak Humoresque on piano
He did make piano rolls for Ampico. Though obviously this is not the same as hearing a recording, it does give you an idea of how he was at the piano. Ampico was proud of having him as an exclusive recording artist: “To Hear Kreisler, the violinist, is the privilege of the whole concert going world-to hear Kreisler, the pianist is the exclusive privilege of the owner of an Ampico.”
Kreisler plays Caprice Viennois
His playing is not that of a violinist playing the piano but is that of a pianist who is a consulate musician. There is a lilt to his playing and he plays his own pieces with finesse, elán and sophistication that is beyond reproach. He is not possessed of the electric technique of a Rachmaninov or a Godowsky but then isn't that the case with his violin playing? He was not Heifetz but we listen because we love the wonderful tone and the impeccable phrasing. His playing on both instruments is beautiful and inviting.
Naxos has a set of recordings where he played with his brother Hugo. Hugo was a cellist, and on one recording he accompanied Hugo. This is a wonderful artifact. Kreisler is an attentive accompanist and I can only assume he improvised his accompaniment for his brother. I admit to having listened to these recordings again and again to try get the flavor and understand the magic. Kreisler accompanies his brother in Liebesleid and it is my opinion that he plays the accompaniment (with little changes) better than any of the pianist who accompanied him in his own classic recordings
Of particular interest to me is their recording of the classic La Cinquantaine. This is not the accompaniment we see regularly and of course I wanted to play it this way. I can only assume that Kreisler recomposed the accompaniment on the spot.
Compare that to the standard um-pah accompaniment as heard performed by Ivry Gitlis with pianist Shuku Iwasaki.
He makes this oft-abused, I mean oft-played “student” piece into a sparkling gem for both parts.
I so very much wanted to play this but because of the fact there is no sheet music I had once again ask my dear friend Dr Paul Levi to notate the piano part. Paul is the master of notation and because of his masterful work I am proud to present the first modern recording of Kreisler’s arrangement of Gabriel Marie's La Cinquantaine
I would like to thank Dr. Paul Levi for his help in this project
Also thanks to Alex Beyer for taking time out of his schedule to record this little ditty with me
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