This estimable Kreisler compilation from the young British violinist Jack Liebeck heralds his new alliance with Hyperion, and one could hardly imagine a more propitious start to their relationship. Kreisler anthologies are two a penny, though, and while every fiddler feels duty bound to tackle this repertoire at some point, surprisingly few have the musical intelligence needed to make themselves sound much more than sycophantic pretenders. But Liebeck is no run-of-the mill plagiarist and nor (as his recent Dvořák and Brahms CDs for Sony testify) is he an apologist for being different for the sake of it, and these disarmingly affectionate and often brilliant accounts of these Kreisler favourites prove unusually satisfying.
Time was, and not so very long ago, when great violinists were instantly distinguished by their own sound, so one could recognize a Heifetz, Elman, Szigeti or Huberman from just a cursory hearing. But none was more individual or distinctive than Fritz Kreisler himself, and the bewitching subtlety and inimitable Viennese 'gemütlichkeit' of his playing remains incredibly ditficult to emulate convincingly. Perhaps that’s why Liebeck never tries to, and in remaining faithful to his own playing style, he and his dextrous accompanist Katya Apekisheva bring abundant freshness and spontaneity to these accounts.
How Kreisler finally admitted passing off pieces of his own as original works by little-known Classical and Baroque masters need not be repeated here, and Liebeck includes most of the usual suspects, astutely chosen from Kreisler’s perennial ‘Classical Manuscripts’, ‘Masterworks of the Violin’ and ‘Original Compositions’, but there are several less familiar pieces here, too, including the Marche miniature viennoise and Toy Soldiers’ March.
Liebeck and Apekisheva begin their recital with the Praeludium and Allegro, which gets a nobly severe, urgent reading, nearly a minute faster than the great Oscar Shumsky’s on Nimbus, the modern violinist who came closest of all to faithfully distilling the true essence of Kreisler’s artistry in his own peerless recordings of these works.
Turning to the exquisite Viennese triptych of Schön Rosmarin, Liebesfreud and Liebesleid, it seemed useful to compare Liebeck’s performances with Kreisler’s. One can only admire the way Liebeck infuses these familiar bon-bons with touches of winning originality which appear genuinely spontaneous, though nobody, not even Shumsky, quite manages to re-create Kreisler’s inimitable rubato in Schön Rosmarin.
Particularly superb are the transcriptions of Dvořák's E minor Slavonic Dance, Op 72 No 2 and the ‘Danse espagnole’ from Falla’s La vida breve, both of which are hugely demanding for the violinist and played with élan and bravura here by Liebeck.
Only in the Dvořák transcription does one miss the subdued introspection which Kreisler himself brought to the poignant main theme. Tambourin chinois gets a convincingly idiomatic reading, too, though Liebeck’s deft glissandos are so metrically accurate as to sound a little clinical and even a tad self-conscious alongside Shumsky’s, and even more markedly, beside Kreisler’s own, where the unforced naturalness of his playing carries the day. Still, there’s no gainsaying the panache and precision of Liebeck’s account, which is sure to delight.
The problem, if there is one, is that Liebeck’s performances inhabit an entirely different sound-world. Where both Shumsky and Kreisler himself could modulate and nuance their vibrato in a thousand different ways, and not just alter its speed and amplitude, contemporary fiddlers (and I’d count Liebeck amongst them) have by and large lost the true art of vibrato, with everything subsumed by a tonal homogeneity and uniformity that can rob music like this of its essential charm and intimacy.
Still, this is unquestionably a Kreisler disc to which I’ll be returning often and always with pleasure, for these spirited and discerning readings have so much to commend them as to make even minor qualms seem churlish. Liebeck and Apekisheva are heard at their brilliant best in Kreisler’s own formidably taxing reworking of the G minor ‘Devil’s Trill’ Sonata by Tartini. There is indeed something of the Mephistophelean about this astounding account and Liebeck sounds stunning in Kreisler’s intimidating cadenza. A fitting climax to a warm-hearted and generous compilation, even if one occasionally misses Shumsky’s gravitas and Kreisler’s ineffable geniality.