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Fritz Kreisler

born: 2 February 1875
died: 29 January 1962
country: Austria

Today there are doubtless people who have never heard Fritz Kreisler’s many records and know him solely as the composer of delightful violin pieces. In his own time, he was regarded as a revolutionary player and the epitome of the Viennese violinist, and a distinct hint of scandal hung about his compositions. He was born Friedrich Kreisler in Vienna on 2 February 1875, the son of a Polish doctor who was an amateur violinist. After lessons from his father and Jacques Auber, concertmaster at the Ringtheater, in 1882 he became the youngest student to be admitted to the Vienna Conservatory, studying violin with Joseph Hellmesberger Jnr and composition with Anton Bruckner. Having won the gold medal at the age of ten, he transferred to the Paris Conservatoire, where two of his tutors were Joseph Massart for violin and Léo Delibes for composition. He graduated with the first violin prize in 1887 and in 1888–9 toured America. He then continued his education, spent two years studying medicine and did his military service. In 1896 he began his career as a virtuoso, making an impression everywhere with his new style of playing, using continuous vibrato. After his Vienna debut in 1898 and his Berlin debut a year later, his progress round Europe was a triumphal march. He revisited America in 1900 and in 1902 made such an impact on London that in 1904 he was awarded the Philharmonic Society gold medal.

From the start Kreisler programmed his own pieces in recitals; but in about 1905 he started passing some off as works by composers of the past, even writing a ‘Vivaldi’ concerto. His excuse was that ‘when I was desirous of enlarging my programmes … I found it impudent and tactless to repeat my name endlessly on the programmes’. As only a relative handful of Baroque and Classical works were then known, no one spotted that his Vivaldi sounded nothing like real Vivaldi and that other pieces were also pastiches. It is amusing to read critics lambasting Kreisler for daring to play his own trifles on the same programmes as these superb pieces by great composers such as Pugnani and Couperin! Kreisler bare-facedly told one journalist that he ‘discovered a collection of MSS, music in the possession of the monks who inhabit one of the oldest monasteries in Europe, and so anxious was he to have them for his own that he copied one of the pieces on his shirt-cuff. To this the monks objected, and eventually Kreisler, after much persuasion, succeeded in purchasing the whole collection for a considerable sum of money’. In 1909 he told the New York Times: ‘I discovered the pieces in an old convent in the south of France. I have altogether 53 manuscripts of this sort in my possession. Five of them are more or less valueless. Forty-eight of them are gems.’ As years went by, style-conscious colleagues began to smell a rat. As early as 1910, Kreisler was ticked off by the Berlin critic Leopold Schmidt for including his own Caprice viennois next to gems by Lanner, and had to point out that the ‘Lanner’ pieces were also by him—they were his Liebesfreud and Liebesleid. In that very year, fourteen of the fakes were published as ‘Classical Manuscripts’—the publisher Willy Strecker of Schott had offered Kreisler $1,000 for twenty pieces—and within six months 70,000 copies were sold.

Also in 1910, Kreisler premiered Elgar’s Violin Concerto, dedicated to him, in London with the composer conducting. After brief army service in the Great War, he was wounded and honourably discharged. Moving to New York, he was at first treated as a hero; but once the United States entered the war in 1917 the attitude of many Americans, especially those in the provinces, changed—accused of sending money to the Austrian army, he pointed out that the funds were for his ageing father and war orphans. Fans in the big cities stood by him but it took him several years to recover his former popularity. By contrast he was welcomed back to London in 1920. In 1923 he toured the Far East and in 1924 he moved into a new house in Berlin; but with the advent of the Nazis in 1933, he boycotted Germany over the treatment of his fellow Jews. In 1934 he instructed his American publisher, Carl Fischer, to list the ‘Classical Manuscripts’ as his own compositions in the 1935 catalogue; but this change was pre-empted when the New York Times critic, Olin Downes, was asked to give a lecture-recital with Yehudi Menuhin and started investigating the origins of the Praeludium and Allegro. Kreisler admitted it was his own work and his deception made front-page news worldwide. Most people were amused but the English critic Ernest Newman took a particularly huffy attitude. Following the Anschluss of Austria by Hitler in 1938, Kreisler became a French citizen, then emigrated to the United States. In 1941 he was hit by a truck while absent-mindedly crossing a New York street, and although he recovered and did not stop playing in public until 1950, he was never the same force again. He died in New York on 29 January 1962.

Kreisler’s compositions include two operettas and a string quartet. His popular pieces, some of which he recorded as many as six times, were published as Folksongs from Austria, Small Pieces, Classical Manuscripts, Masterworks of the Violin, Original Compositions and Transcriptions. They reflect his twin skills as a colorist on the violin and as a pianist—he and Harold Bauer once performed Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Violin Sonata in New York, then switched instruments to play it again at the after-concert party.

from notes by Tully Potter © 2014


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