The Belgian-born Henri Vieuxtemps stands in the center of that line of Classical and Romantic violinist composers. In fact, a chronological list of the forty most-prominent violinist composers, from the beginning (Arcangelo Corelli, b.1653) to well into the 20th century (Amadeo Roldan, b.1900) also places Vieuxtemps right in the middle, at number twenty.
Louis Spohr (1784-1859). Overture to Jessonda (1822). Budapest Symphony Orchestra, Alfred Walter.
Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881). Fantasia appassionata, Op. 35 (1846-52). Misha Keylin, violin, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Mogrelia.
Vieuxtemps. Ballade et Polonaise, Op. 38 (1860). Misha Keylin, violin, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Mogrelia.
Interview with Violinist Misha Keylin
The list is an instructive picture of the legacy of Vieuxtemps, since he serves as a nice fulcrum between two eternally opposed forces in classical music. He balances entertaining the audience, with satisfying the academy - surface virtuosity with musical depth.
It's not easily done. Paganini wowed the much younger Vieuxtemps - and everyone else - with almost magical pyrotechnics, but most agree that beneath the sizzle of his music there's not much steak. Joachim, on the other hand, wrote solid works not known for brilliance. Vieuxtemps seems perfectly balanced between the two.
What explains it? A clue may come from two Ludwigs - Spohr and Beethoven. At 13, Vieuxtemps met Spohr (then, as now, usually known by the French form of his name, Louis). Not only a virtuoso violinist, Spohr was also a gifted composer who wrote in every genre. He saw depth as well as talent in the young prodigy, and aided his career. Vieuxtemps was in Vienna, with Spohr and other colleagues of Beethoven, who had died there seven years earlier. Someone showed the young man the titanic Beethoven concerto, and after only two weeks of practice the now-14-year-old Vieuxtemps fired a cannon-shot over Vienna by performing it. His future was assured, and so too, incidentally, was the future of the Beethoven concerto. It had been almost forgotten since its ragged 1806 premiere, but Vieuxtemps put it back into the consciousness of the musical world. Its place would be cemented into the repertoire ten years later by the even younger (12-year-old!) Joachim.
Vieuxtemps' love for Beethoven's music continued, and he often played and taught the old master's chamber music. Perhaps Beethoven's influence explains the integration of orchestra and soloist that is a hallmark of the Vieuxtemps style.
We're fortunate that Misha Keylin has made a special project of recording so much of this literature. Violinists may know the Fifth concerto; Keylin has recorded all seven. In addition to his gorgeous playing, we get to hear two quite different instruments on this program. Keylin performs the Fantasia appassionata on his own 1831 Gagliano, rich and burnished. But for the Ballade et Polonaise he turns to the 1715 "Baron Knoop" Stradivarius, loaned especially for this recording. The instrument is a wonder, all silver fire. Though the violins inhabit distinct sound-worlds, Keylin's poetic soul glows throughout.
In the studio, Keylin fills us in on why he's attracted to Vieuxtemps, who sums up so much of what defines the violinist composer. In the process, we may find ourselves likewise drawn in to Vieuxtemps, this man in the middle of all that brilliance.