replay; Fritz Kreisler: The Complete RCA Recordings with John McCormack (tenor), Geraldine Farrar (soprano), Sergei Rachmaninov (piano) and various supporting artists (Recorded: 1910-1946) (RCA 09026-61649-2; 11 discs)

He was a gentleman among virtuosos, a Bruckner pupil who earned the title "King of Violinists" and partnered the greatest musicians of the day - including Godowsky, Dohnanyi, Paderewski, Casals and, of course, Rachmaninov. Fritz Kreisler premiered the Elgar Concerto under Elgar and played sundry concertos under Mahler; he foxed the critics by parading his own charming compositions as arrangements of original "baroque masters", fell victim to American war hysteria during the First World War and was ousted from Europe during the Second. He became an American citizen in 1943 and made a few records thereafter, but by then his old-world warmth, wit and interpretative good manners had been upstaged by the princely virtues of a new violinistic order led by Jascha Heifetz.

Kreisler's style presents something of a paradox in that its timeless properties (elegance, a gloriously full-bodied tone and indelibly individualistic phrasing) are offset by a small number of "period" hallmarks such as portamento and a quick, fairly intense vibrato. The principal reason for Kreisler's post-war eclipse, however, is less connected with the manner of his playing than with the musically ephemeral nature of his recorded repertoire.

Of the 11 CDs gathered together in this superbly transferred and expertly annotated collection, 10 are dominated by "salon" pieces, most having been either composed or arranged by Kreisler himself. There are countless re-recordings, "second takes" and "first releases", with no less than six Thais "Meditations" and five each of Liebesleid, Liebesfreud and Caprice viennois, not to mention the numerous Dvorak Humoreques, Smetana Bohemian Fantasies, Tchaikovsky Chants sans paroles and Old Folks at Home. And although some of the less memorable "songs of the day" will likely try one's patience (musically speaking, that is), the pleasure-yield offered by comparing, say, Kreisler's sweet-but-plain support of soprano Geraldine Farrar in Mighty Like a Rose with the gloriously big-hearted solo violin version recorded some years later cannot be overstated.

One senses the widening curve of Kreisler's expressive technique, starting among the wistful but strong-wristed solos of the teens (duets with John McCormack are especially endearing), reaching its height around the birth of electrical recording (1925-7) and maturing among a melancholy selection recorded within weeks of the Wall Street Crash. Prior to that, Kreisler had set down magnificent Beethoven, Schubert and Grieg sonatas with Rachmaninov and, although there were still glories to come, the more fallible later sessions (which coincided more or less with the German surrender) suggest manifest sadness at what had become of Europe and her culture.

Kreisler's last two recordings (both of them "firsts" in his discography) featured, respectively, a song from his show The King Steps Out and the memorable, Korngold-style Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta, a poignant farewell to the City of Dreams from one of her dearest sons.

ROBERT COWAN

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