The greatest misfortune for violinist and composer Rodolphe Kreutzer is that Ludwig van Beethoven dedicated his Opus 47 violin sonata in A major to him. It is unclear how it came to be known as the “Kreutzer Sonata;” but the name struck strongly enough to be appropriated by Leo Tolstoy for a novella (whose plot line incorporates a performance of Beethoven’s sonata), which, in turn, inspired the first string quartet by Leoš Janáček. Ironically, Kreutzer himself apparently never played Beethoven’s sonata. According to a Baron de Tremont,
… Kreutzer played all his passages legato, and always kept his bow on the string; now, this piece [Beethoven’s sonata] is all in staccato and sautillé [off the string] – and so Kreutzer never played it.
As a result most of the world today recognizes Kreutzer’s name only for its association with Beethoven’s sonata.
A recent Naxos CD of the last three violin concertos that Kreutzer himself composed (he composed a total of nineteen) is a noble effort to bring attention back to Kreutzer himself. At the very least those concertos certainly lend credibility to Tremont’s observation (reported in the booklet notes by Bruce R. Schueneman) about Kreutzer’s fixation with legato. Indeed, that fixation is so strong that, while there is considerable virtuosity in the violin parts for all three concertos, there is also a good deal of uniformity across all that virtuosity. Even Schueneman, who gives his best shot at promoting these compositions, finally concedes that the final movement of the eighteenth concerto is a “rondo tune with more lyrical sections and the usual passage-work.”
That pretty much sums up the entire recording. Both the solo and orchestral parts abound with that “usual passage-work;” and one comes away from listening to these three concertos with a sense that the judgment of history can get it right at least some of the time. The good news is that, while the music itself may be lacking in that intimate connection between invention and execution that can be admired even in Antonio Vivaldi’s myriad concertos, the performance by violinist Axel Strauss with Andrew Mogrelia conducting the San Francisco Conservatory orchestra is so elegant that one can find much to listen to strictly in the technique of execution.
Strauss has never been shy about venturing into unfamiliar regions of repertoire. As was recently reported, his current project with Naxos involves recording all of the compositions by George Enescu for violin and piano. Having heard him perform frequently at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he is a member of the Violin Faculty, I have never known him to short-change a composition that he has committed himself to perform; and I cannot imagine another violinist serving as a better advocate for Kreutzer. Mogrelia, for his part, always seemed to have selected tempos that would move the music forward at an acceptable clip. At the very least this tended to blunt the rather abrupt endings that conclude just about all nine movements on the CD. (Each concerto follows pretty much consistently the same three-movement pattern.) Basically, Mogrelia figured out how to provide a sufficiently spirited execution of those movement that would elicit a committed performance from the students in the Orchestra while balancing perfectly against the polished legato of Strauss’ solo lines.
To conclude on a slightly whimsical note, I could not help but notice that this CD from the Conservatory, like the one examined yesterday featuring David Tanenbaum from the Guitar Faculty, featured a composer whose last name begins with the letter K. (Yesterday it was Aaron Jay Kernis.) If the Conservatory plans to continue recording projects with Naxos, perhaps they would consider some other composers with the same initial, who are just as worthy of consideration. After all a suite for two violins, cello, and piano left hand, which was a high point in the series of end-of-term String and Piano Chamber Music recitals, was a seldom-heard composition (Opus 23) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold that has been recorded at least once but still deserves more exposure than it has received thus far. Then there is Charles Koechlin, who seems to receive more attention for his skills in orchestration than for his original compositions. Then, of course, there is Mauricio Kagel, whose tape music will be performed on January 7 at the first concert of The San Francisco Tape Music Festival, but who was also a prolific composer of instrumental and vocal music. Personally, I would give anything to hear his Sankt-Bach-Passion and would be delighted if the Conservatory had a “critical mass” of performers who share my excitement!