Sunday’s A Far Cry program at the Gardner Museum, titled “Violin Hero,” paid tribute to three great violinists of the early 20th century.
But hovering behind its conception was an earlier figure, Niccolo Paganini, who was of course the original Violin Hero. His performances were likened to “a jet of flame pouring out over the entire concert hall.” Rumors hovered around him. It was said that a sister of Napoleon could not hear him play without fainting, that his strings were made of human intestines, even that he learned his demonic technique while locked in a prison cell, where, according to Stendhal, “he acquired the art of expressing the very whispers of his soul in sound.”
Note that even in these tall tales, Paganini was expressing his soul — not sweating over the scores of earlier masters. Indeed, once upon a time, great violinists were composers, especially of music for their own instruments. The legend of Paganini’s virtuosity is inseparable from his force as a creative artist.
Alas, fast forward a couple hundred years, and more modern divisions of musical labor have made this unity itself a thing of the past. Yet happily, A Far Cry gave audiences a sampling of the compositional gems that still lie tucked away behind the performance reputations of three distinguished violinists, each of whom formed a kind of bridge across eras, styles, and centuries.
The afternoon began with the Scherzo from Fritz Kreisler’s Quartet in A minor. As a violinist, Kreisler (1875-1962) outlived his own time to become a poet of wistfulness. He was the fiddler-in-residence of a Vienna that no longer existed, where life remained in waltz time, and the past was always beautiful. Kreisler’s tone, it was said, “breathed out his inner feeling as a flower breathes off its scent.” Kreisler’s own compositions, often heard today as encores, release the same fragrance as his playing. And the members of A Far Cry stepped seamlessly into the lilting insouciance of this Scherzo, turning its round corners and tossing off its ricochet bowings as if in a single voice.
Next came the towering Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye, a figure so beloved that, at his death in 1931, his heart was embalmed and placed in a silver box. He was represented here by his “Harmonies du Soir,” a cresting, sumptuously appointed score that enfolds a string quartet within the ambrosial warmth of a string orchestra. A Far Cry’s performance was at once meticulous and rhapsodic.
And the afternoon concluded with George Enescu’s roiling, folk-inflected Octet, a juggernaut of a piece that dwarfed the others in size and in the near-symphonic heft of its sonorities. A Far Cry was again very much in its element, with individual solo lines rising up and then disappearing once more into the sea of strings. The Octet’s slow movement brought the concert’s most delicately arresting passages — hushed music of an iridescent beauty — offered here with something more than expertise. As Leopold Auer, another violin hero, put it simply: “art begins where technique ends.”
A FAR CRY
At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, SundayJeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.