Walking out of Maxim Vengerov’s recent recital at Avery Fisher Hall, I thought of the intermission more as a remission. At a bar in Penn Station a few minutes later, where I heard some Junior Wells on the sound system, the playing (if not the music) was better than anything that the violinist had given. Apparently, for all of his posturing, Maxim just could not get the lead out of his Vengerov. Fritz Kreisler came to mind, as to many he often does. There are quite a few people around who still remember him in performance over 50 years ago, and many more who know him from recordings made as long ago as 1904.

For people like those and for others, I hope. Amy Biancolli’s new biography is just the thing. Her rethinking of Kreisler’s career is the first extended treatment it has received since Louis Lochner’s Fritz Kreisler of 1950. Biancolli has not written a straightforward biography like Lochner’s, but rather an analytical engagement with a man, a personality, and a style. She was right to do so, and right again to see Kreisler as a “problem” to us, musically as well as culturally.

Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) is a challenge because he represents the old world from before World War I, and even before the turn of the century. His upbringing in Vienna marked him for life, and something of Viennese grace always stamped his playing as well as him. As a child, Kreisler knew Herr Doktor Freud, who dropped over for chamber music sessions at home. He studied with Anton Bruckner and consulted with Johannes Brahms. Kreisler came to embody the myth of Old Vienna as much as any modem artist did, with the possible exception of Richard Tauber. Biancolli has taken on Kreisler’s cultural background, the context of violin playing in his youth, and the continuous vibrato that was his distinctive contribution to technique. She has attacked boldly and with humor the idiosyncrasies of Kreisler’s personality—his laziness and his weaknesses, his marriage for over 60 years to a woman few could abide, his outrageous tall tales, and his “politics.” Kreisler, as a good Austrian, served in the Great War, and was later reviled for it in America. He lived in Berlin from 1924 until 1939 and denied his Jewish background all his life, so imbued was he with the Viennese image that informed the self he had assimilated. But after World War II, he never went back to Europe.

Biancolli implies that the “Kreisler problem” is bigger than all this; that it is, actually, a musical problem. Her analysis of Jascha Heifetz’s approach to the instrument and to music, in great contrast to Kreisler’s, is a bold one, suggesting, as I understand it, that the lack is on the side of reductive modernism. Heifetz blew away the Gemütlichkeit from the violin repertoire; he was the enemy of all indulgence. Kreisler admired Heifetz’s mastery, but he probably liked Milstein and Francescatti considerably more. His favorite of the younger players was Oistrakh, of whom he declared, “He does not play too fast. This is very unusual today. We are living in the time of money, and power, and violence, and, above all, speed.” In this statement, we see how musical issues are related to broader cultural and political ones as matters of style and value. We can also see that Kreisler thought that the younger generation was on the wrong side, and we cannot say that things have gotten any better since then.

World War I, industrialism, modernism: They killed Kreisler’s values, but there was a cultural lag. His sentimental compositions still pleased those who remembered them: Liebesleid, Liebesfreud, Schön Rosemarin, Caprice Viennois, and all the rest. And what a touch he had in playing them! Kreisler was a hero, a pop idol, in the 1930’s, yet Biancolli indicates that she has written about Kreisler because today he is in danger of being forgotten. In doing so, she has accomplished much to prevent such a loss of memory and of musical standards. For that, as for quoting Oscar Shumsky’s judgment (“I think Heifetz was a destructive influence in a very great sense”) and suggesting that a return to the romantic mysticism of Kreisler is long overdue, she is much to be commended.

Appended to Biancolli’s biography is a scholarly discography by Eric Wen. Kreisler’s recorded output is mostly available today on compact discs produced by EMI, BMG, Pearl, and Biddulph. Needless to say, Kreisler’s own performances of his encore pieces are nonpareil. But perhaps it does need saying that his performances of standard repertoire are far from being obsolete, in spite of the steady march of technology, technique, and duplication. Kreisler’s first recordings of the Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms concerti remain as fascinating today as they were when he made them in Berlin in 1926-27. If you think—not unreasonably—that his miniaturism, rubati, portamenti, and regressive fiddling tendencies rendered him hors de combat in such pieces, you will nevertheless be impressed and even charmed by Kreisler’s warm lyricism, relaxed approach, and colorful point-making. To know the possibilities of those greatest of violin concerti, listening to Kreisler is mandatory.

Kreisler’s Beethoven sonatas are also indispensable, as are the three sonatas he recorded with Sergei Rachmaninoff. Such playing set a standard not only for the violin but for communication itself Born of change and technology, yesterday’s latest thing is today’s quaint souvenir, yet it is more than that. Kreisler may have been sentimental, but he was human and a humanist. As we proceed in a technological nightmare of which he was a part, Kreisler will be remembered as a man as well an instrumentalist—as an image of the projection of refined emotion. He made the violin the vehicle of a unique fusion of feeling and thought. As much as any performing artist in the 20th century, he put the musical statement (whether popular or exalted) together, dramatized it, projected so it could be apprehended, and personified it. He stands as a reproach today to a dehumanized world, and to music without soul.


[Fritz Kreisler: Love’s Sorrow, Love’s Joy, by Amy Biancolli (Portland: Amadeus Press) 453 pp., $34.95]