Kreisler, Zimbalist, Ysaye / Fine Arts Quartet

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KREISLER String Quartet in a 1. ZIMBALIST String Quartet in e 1. YSAŸE Harmonies du soir 2 1,2 Fine Arts Qrt; 2 Otis Klöber, cond; 2 Members of Europe PO NAXOS 8.572559 (71:36)

Two of the works on this disc—Zimbalist’s String Quartet and Ysaÿe’s Harmonies du soir —are premiere recordings. While it’s conceivable that someone reading this review could have heard Ysaÿe in concert toward the end of his career—he died in 1931—it’s more likely that readers will be more familiar with the great violinist as a composer, many of whose works, particularly his six sonatas for solo violin, have survived him to become standard repertoire pieces.

With Fritz Kreisler (1875–1962) and Efrem Zimbalist (1890–1985) the situation is somewhat reversed. More than a few readers, I suspect, will have heard them play, at least on record if not in person. Their compositional output, however, was either slim in the case of Zimbalist or, in Kreisler’s case, consisting of a collection of salon pieces, cadenzas to other composers’ concertos, and a number of hoaxes perpetrated under the names of actual Baroque composers.

Kreisler did, nonetheless, make at least one attempt at writing a serious, multimovement, classically-styled work, the String Quartet in A Minor heard on the present disc. He wrote it in 1919, and it displays both considerable craft and familiarity with the musical trends of the time, which is to say it’s a beautifully written piece with nary an original idea. The first movement, titled Fantasia, is a dead ringer for César Franck’s 1889 D-Major String Quartet. The second movement, a scherzo, is positively Mendelssohnian. The lovely Romanze returns to a Franck-Fauré-Debussy idiom, while the finale, titled “Retrospection,” takes on the character of some of Kreisler’s lighter salon pieces. It’s a sort of Caprice viennois flirting with a Fuchs serenade.

Zimbalist thought enough of his 1931 E-Minor String Quartet to revise it in 1959. It too, like Kreisler’s quartet, is a model of superbly crafted string writing, but differs considerably from it in style. Where Kreisler synthesized his score from the musical vocabularies of composers and their works that were roughly contemporaneous in 1919 when he wrote it, Zimbalist looks back for his inspiration to the closing decade of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th, and specifically to his Russian roots in the music of Arensky, Glazunov, and Sergei Taneyev. In other words, Zimbalist’s quartet is a throwback to an earlier period and style, one that is very romantic and very Russian sounding.

Ysaÿe’s Harmonies du soir is an unusual hybrid of a piece scored for string quartet and string orchestra. Written in 1924, it’s a fairly late entry in the composer’s catalog, described in Roy Malan’s program note as “a sensuously chromatic journey through thickly textured emotions and colors finally leading, by restlessly climbing motifs, to a glorious sunrise in C.” To my ear, the piece resembles early Schoenberg; Transfigured Night could well be its mother. The only documented public performance was given by the Columbia University Strings in New York in 1979.

As noted, the Zimbalist and Ysaÿe pieces are firsts on disc, and while both are quite attractive, I’d be surprised to see seconds anytime soon. Luckily, both scores find themselves in excellent hands with the Fine Arts Quartet and, in the Ysaÿe, joined by the string section of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Europe led by Otis Klöber.

Kreisler’s quartet has been previously recorded, most notably by Kreisler himself with an ensemble that also included violist William Primrose. That recording, however, appears to be available only in a 10-CD EMI set that gathers a multitude of concerto and sonata recordings featuring Kreisler in his capacity as violinist.

The performances on the current Naxos CD are top-notch, as is the recording. The three works are appealing enough and certainly of sufficient interest to warrant recommendation, especially given a release so affordably priced.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8572559

  • UPC: 747313255979

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Efrem Zimbalist, Eugène Ysaÿe, Fritz Kreisler

  • Conductor: Otis Klöber

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Fine Arts String Quartet, Philharmonic Orchestra Of Europe