I’m doing one of those Facebook things where someone challenges you to post a piece of music every day for a week. It’s been surprisingly fun. One of my seven choices is below, but I want to say a bit more than usual about it – hence, a rarely spotted blog entry.
I play fiddle, which is what my legendary violin teacher would call the instrument. Started lessons at the age of five, sounded absolutely terrible for at least the first three years (I have the cassettes as proof), sounded slightly less terrible for the next ten, and past the apex of Grade 8 Distinction-and-prize-from-the-exam-board I slowly declined into violin-playing mediocrity.
But Jones The Fiddle, as we really did call him, had a passion for his subject that few of my educators, before or since, have ever matched. Not for him a dull plod through the standard-issue Suzuki Violin School, the well-meaning but nauseatingly ubiquitous fiddle-learning guide of the 1970s and 1980s. Mr Jones introduced me to the infinitely more interesting Dofleins,, the more elementary parts of the solo canon (everything from Fiocco to Bach to the neglected Alfred Moffat), and the more obscure backwaters: I still remember the joy of finding a CD of Béla Bartók’s 44 duos for two violins in HMV Oxford Street, because seemingly no-one had seen fit to record them, angular and playful though they were.
He had his likes and dislikes: his favourite rendition of The Four Seasons was this one, and he didn’t have many good words to say about Nigel Kennedy. But above all else, I think, he adored Fritz Kreisler, the irascible, prodigious, and probably the best violin virtuoso of any generation. I loved Kreisler too, not only as a violinist but also as an extraordinarily versatile composer, seemingly able to turn his hand to any violin genre from romantic to modernist, and make it his own.
This is my favourite Kreisler piece. It was originally published under a pseudonym, Kreisler having taken the name of long-dead Italian violinist Gaetano Pugnani to publish what was his own Praeludium and Allegro. Urban legend has it that he did this to avoid reprisals from his fellow violinists, because Kreisler wrote some of the most challenging pieces in the entire violin repertoire, even by today’s standards. (No, of course I can’t play it. Well, OK, give me the Praeludium sheet music and I’d probably have a go, as long as I could excuse myself half-way through and get a stunt double in for the Allegro.)
My favourite ever version of the Praeludium and Allegro is also one of the scarcest, which is a pity – Ruggiero Ricci’s early 1960s recording is fairly peerless, and not just because it’s the one I was most familiar with, having being bought on Mr Jones’ recommendation in a double-cassette box from Carmarthen Woolies for £1.99. There are many other versions, but most miss the mark: Itzhak Perlman, though generally untouchable, sounds far too urgent and furious in his take on the Praeludium: to my ears, Kreisler’s majestic opening needs room to breathe and puff out its chest before the fireworks of the Allegro. Joshua Bell, on the other hand, has pretty much hit the nail on the head, so you’re getting him.
Mr Jones died in 2005, but he gave me a classical music upbringing that I’m still immeasurably grateful for. I’m not sure whether he ever heard Bell’s take on this, but I humour myself to think he’d have liked it.