Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Etudes or Caprices: Nos. 1–40
Elizabeth Wallfisch (vn) (period instrument)
cpo 999 012 (2 CDs: 103:36)
Rodolfe Kreutzer’s 40 studies (usually printed in a collection of 42) form the basis of violin-playing, introducing the beginner to the rudiments of intermediate technique. But one of them has become well known in its own right as the prototypical violin study ground out futilely by Jack Benny. Kreutzer is also known as the dedicatee of Beethoven’s Ninth Sonata, originally intended for
George Bridgetower, and his concertos once occupied a place in the literature firm enough for the adolescent Isaac Stern to have played, I believe, the 13th.
The idea of recording studies isn’t entirely a new one. Virtuoso Inc. had Steven Staryk record Wieniawski’s Caprices, op. 18, on LP (playing both violin parts—VIR 1001), and Ruggiero Ricci recorded Wieniawski’s
, op. 10, together with Ernst’s
(issued on CD as Dynamic 28). Auer student Oscar Shumsky made a brilliant recording of Rode’s caprices—and, of course, the catalog bursts at the seams with Paganini’s caprices, played on violin, viola, flute, and saxophone! But Kreutzer may have seemed like bread without butter, and, to my knowledge, Elizabeth Wallfisch’s readings constitute the first attempt to present this literature for listeners as well as students.
As the notes state, and as serious students have learned by long and bitter experience, Kreutzer’s studies begin with a single cantabile study and progress through a series of mechanical but fascinating bowing drills, before taking up the trill in various settings and, finally, double-stops. They may be the foundation of intermediate technique, but the story goes that when a visitor found Wieniawski practicing Kreutzer, the violinist remarked that they were hardly as easy as they had been taken to be.
In a printed interview, Wallfisch waxes almost rhapsodic on the musical merits of these pieces. In fact, they sound like the passagework that might be found in Viotti’s concertos. They don’t consistently reach up high on the fingerboard, and after luthiers readjusted the angle and length of the instrument’s neck, Kreutzer responded with a second set of studies that reach higher. These later studies have been edited by Carl Flesch, and although he denigrates them in his preface, they do extend the range of the earlier works effectively.
Wallfisch plays the studies—in order—on a Petrus Paulus de Vitor violin from 1750 and a bow made by Daniel Parker in 1782. According to the interview, however, she didn’t play them in order—to do so, she noted, would have crippled her hand. (In addition, she recorded them over four days. Dont’s Caprices, op. 35, have the same effect, and teachers like to relieve the cramp by assigning De Bériot’s 60 Concert Studies, which emphasize fluency.) Paganini’s caprices, of course, mix their difficulties in a heady cocktail that hardly ever makes the hand stay in position long enough to be cramped, though they may stretch it uncomfortably—or even unmercifully. Wallfisch also plays the studies with sparing vibrato and with portamentos that would seem ungainly even to many beginning students. A student playing them in this way wouldn’t develop the kind of technique and tone production required for most orchestral or solo performances. Perhaps it’s just not possible to play such technique-based study material winningly with any period’s technique; I remember students in Heifetz’s master classes playing Dont and Paganini with very little tonal appeal and Heifetz standing by without objecting. (On the other hand, Shumsky almost makes character pieces from Rode’s studies). Wallfisch plays the Jack Benny study (the Second) and the Third at very moderate tempos, with plenty of accents and with changes of bowing, rendering the Second almost in the style of the period’s concerto passages. She takes advantage of the musical materials over mock-pedals in the Seventh Study; No. 8 may be one of the most highly praised for its possibilities for developing flexible bowing, but her tempo and single pattern throughout (though with nuances) hardly reveals them. No. 9 prefigures the trill studies. Editors have extended the arpeggios of No. 12 to create an even more valuable study that explores the upper positions; but, as it stands, it’s still most worthy. Wallfisch’s edition omits the study usually printed as No. 13, going directly to the musically satisfying No. 14 as her 13th. The 14th (15th) introduces the short trill, which Wallfisch plays smartly and crisply (as she does all the trill studies, and with real panache in the 17th (18th), without the extended beginnings and endings the editors suggest in so many editions. In the 18th (19th) study, she begins the trills from the note above in the first section; then, in the second section, varies by beginning on the main note. She takes the trills as inverted mordents in No. 20 (No. 21) and the trills in No. 21 (No. 22) very quickly, with strong accents (as suggested), beginning, again, on the main note. This study takes its patterns into awkward keys and positions in which it can be very difficult to maintain the articulation, especially for such a long period; but Wallfisch succeeds in keeping her hand alert and her energy high. No 22 (No. 23), a rare study in running figuration, provides a break, but Wallfisch’s sound in the long-held notes could hardly serve as a model that a more modern student (or teacher) would want to emulate. Still, she is fleet in the runs. Heifetz demanded that one of his students play No. 23 (No. 24), predominantly in octaves, with full bows because he didn’t take enough bow in a passage in Tchaikovsky’s Concerto. It doesn’t sound as though Wallfisch plays with full bows—and neither does (hardly) anyone else. Wallfisch omits the study usually given as No. 25, and plays as her 24th the one usually printed as No. 26. No. 24 (No. 26) requires far-reaching modulations, which Wallfisch traverses reasonably well. The 25th (27th) study, like those from No. 22 (No. 23) on, sounds almost as intriguing as one of Paganini’s caprices; and No. 26 (No. 28) amounts to a character piece in miniature—and that’s the way Wallfisch plays it—with aplomb and musical intelligence. She imparts an almost martial and boldly virtuosic character to No. 28 (No. 30), as she does to the March, No. 33 (No. 35). No. 29 (No. 31) synthesizes all the preceding studies; and as the work becomes more difficult, Wallfisch seems to grow more enthusiastic. No. 30 (No. 32) begins the stately procession of double-stopped studies. This one, like the next (depending on the fingerings employed), requires what can be painful stretches, but Wallfisch plays sonorously, with decently pure intonation. In No. 31 (No. 33) she takes the middle section’s eighth notes on separate bows—smoother bowings would reveal the awkward finger contortions, so should this be considered an excusable form of cheating? She makes No. 32 (No. 34) almost as much fun to listen to as to play. No. 38 (No. 40) poses real difficulties with its double-stopped trills (reminiscent of passages in Spohr’s cadenza to his Eighth Concerto, “Gesangszene”; again, Wallfisch cranks up her technical engine for this marathon. She omits some of the chordal notes in my edition of No. 39 (No. 41) and tints its twisted ropes of sound with an exceedingly (excessively?) dark hue.
Who will want this set? Teachers and students, of course, though they may find it of limited value in establishing a stylistic benchmark for their own use. Violin aficionados who consider this a sort of pre-“old testament” (the real “old testament” being Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas and the “new testament,” Paganini’s caprices) and those investigating the roots of violinistic passagework should find it essential. Very strongly recommended to these limited audiences.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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