Jan Kubelik       (2-Biddulph LAB 033/34)
Item# S0651
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Jan Kubelik       (2-Biddulph LAB 033/34)
S0651. JAN KUBELIK: The Acoustic Recordings. (England) 2-Biddulph LAB 033/34, recorded 1902-13. Transfers by Charles Levin. Very long out-of-print, Final Copy! - 744718003426


“The violin virtuoso Jan Kubelik was, in his heyday, an immensely famous and wealthy performer. He became popular at a time when the art of violin playing was experiencing a revolution, spurred on by his older contemporary and fellow star Eugčne Ysa˙e (1858 - 1931). However, while Ysa˙e had made it a point to inject his playing with an interpretive depth and complexity of insight, Kubelik prized mastery of technique over depth of expression, performing Paganini-style finger twisters with incredible ease. While this approach was guaranteed to dazzle audiences, it was not designed to make a lasting impression on the artform. Kubelik, therefore, never achieved the lasting recognition that Ysa˙e enjoys to this day. Yet it would be most unfair to dismiss Kubelik's accomplishments, for he represents the culmination of a style of violin performance that died out before the advent of sound recordings, a style that was wholly germane to the nineteenth century. It is immensely fortunate, then, to have the surviving recordings of Kubelik, which provide a fascinating glimpse into an era that saw the towering figures of Niccolň Paganini (1782 - 1840), Henri Vieuxtemps (1820 - 1881), and Henryk Wieniawski (1835 - 1880), all of whom died before they had the opportunity to preserve their playing for posterity.

The life of Jan Kubelik, born in Michle, near Prague, is as much a product of the nineteenth century as his playing style. He was brought up in easy circumstances, being enrolled at a young age in the Prague Conservatory, where he studied under Ottokar Sevcik, whose notoriously severe regimen of practice contributed, more than any other factor, to Kubelik's excessive devotion to finger dexterity over depth of expression. Kubelik was quite precocious, making his first public apperance at the age of eight, when he performed a concerto by Vieuxtemps. He began touring at age 18, achieving international acclaim in a very short time.

Kubelik came to the United States in 1902, where he was acclaimed as the ‘Heir to Paganini’, stirring up a frenzy among audiences wherever he played. At age 21, he was already immensely wealthy, even by modern standards; slim and attractive, he was the object of admiration of many young ladies, who deluged him with offers of marriage. The following year, he married the Countess Czaky Szell of Hungary. In 1915, he retired from the concert stage, in order to devote his energy to composing. He wrote a large number of pieces, none of which met with any great success. The retirement was short-lived, however, and Kubelik reappeared in 1921, contining to concertize sporadically until his death in 1940.

Already by the early decades of the twentieth century, Kubelik was receiving intense competition from a younger generation of players whose style and technique would contribute so much to the development of violin art. It is not amiss to say that his playing had become anachronistic. Yet it would not do well to ignore the achievement of Kubelik, whose charming, ‘provincial’ style of playing contains, in its best moments, an air of detached elegance that has now vanished from the concert platform.”

- Edward Moore, allmusic.com

“Like many others of his generation, Kubelík began his career as a violinist under the guidance of his father, an amateur player. His formative years were marked by long hours of practice, coming to fruition as he became widely known as the perfect product of Ševcik’s rigorous training….He was celebrated for his virtuosity, richness of tone and faithful intonation.

Two years after graduating from the Prague Conservatory Kubelík received a hero’s welcome from the London public, playing at Richter’s invitation. Audiences found him as appealing as the likes of Paganini and Paderewski; critics, however, were more circumspect in their reaction, suggesting that he was less a true musician than a technical wizard whose immediate success relied as much upon a powerful marketing machine as anything else. One critic commented on the young virtuoso’s evident delight in overcoming the most challenging technical difficulties, whilst hoping ‘as he grows older he may […] revel equally in unravelling the beauties and depths that lie hidden in [the music of masters such as Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bruch and Brahms]’. The American public similarly appears to have succumbed to the efforts of Kubelík’s publicity team before his arrival there in 1901 and was just as keen to receive him with almost hysterical excitement. Here too the musical cognoscenti were less rapt, a critic of The New York Times dubbing him a ‘fiddle trickster, a mountebank of the jumping bow and sliding finger.’ Jacques Thibaud, reported in Marten’s VIOLIN MASTERY, was similarly scathing: ‘Ševcik’s purely soulless and mechanical system has undoubtedly produced a number of excellent mechanicians of the violin. But it has just as unquestionably killed real talent. Kubelík—there was a genuinely talented violinist! If he had had another teacher instead of Ševcik he would have been great, for he had great gifts. Even as it was he played well, but I consider him one of Ševcik’s victims’.

During World War I Kubelík removed himself from the concert circuit, turning his attention to composition and producing six violin concertos, a symphony and various chamber works. The subsequent demise of his performing career was certainly hastened by the arrival on the concert scene of Jascha Heifetz and in Kubelík’s various ‘comeback’ performances from the 1920s onwards he seems to have been considered something of a ‘has-been’.

Kubelík was amongst the earliest world-class violinists to make solo recordings, initially for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in 1902, then for Fonotipia/Polydor (1905–1910), HMV (1911–1915) and Victor (eight solos in 1917). His 1935 Carnegie Hall concert was also recorded and has been reissued. Gramophone and Typewriter recorded Kubelík and Nellie Melba in 1904: the understated obbligato roles in Mozart’s ‘L’amero saro costante’ and the Bach-Gounod ‘Ave Maria’ demonstrate a rather more tender side to his playing with the emphasis on purity of tone and close parity with Melba’s vocal sound. The early ‘Ave Maria’ recording quickly became a widely accepted classic and was re-recorded twice in 1913, following technological advances.

Overall, Kubelík’s recordings are seen, rightly in many ways, as some of the most successful of the early period and his tone is projected well even by basic acoustic technology, although some of his earliest discs are notably more primitive in sound than even acoustic performances of a few years later (his 1905 performance of Bazzini’s ‘La Ronde des lutins’ being considerably clearer than the 1903 recording of the same work). Technically, as in the case of Heifetz some years later, Kubelík’s playing is astonishingly precise and formidably reliable, Sarasate’s ‘Concert Fantasy on Carmen’ (1903) being a shining example. Similarly early recordings of elder statesmen such as Joachim and Sarasate show them, on a technical level at least, to be rather past their prime and even (arguably) behind the times in terms of technical accuracy. Kubelík, though, bears witness to the effectiveness of Ševcik’s systematic training and perhaps heralds the dawn of an age in which technical wizardry on a previously undreamt-of scale became the norm rather than the exception. There are reservations to be had, however, similar to those levelled at Heifetz: Kubelík’s playing, as suggested by Thibaud, does perhaps seem a little soulless and almost too efficient. There is a lack of psychological depth to some of the more major works recorded. Raff’s ‘Cavatina’ is admirably well-drilled with a very lush sound, but it lacks subtlety on a musical level, as does the 1912 arranged excerpt of the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, which has very little in the way of tempo rubato and seems to plod along in a pedestrian fashion.

Kubelík divides opinion quite sharply, some seeing him as a stunning exemplar of the best of playing in the early part of the twentieth century and a portent of later achievements, others viewing him as a remarkable executor but one who failed to plumb the depths of human experience. Either way, he is one of the most important and fascinating musicians….”

- David Milsom, A–Z of String Players