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Reviews of James Kreger Performing Chopin on YouTube

CHOPIN: Introduction and Polonaise Brillante, Op. 3; James Kreger, cello, David Golub, piano

Fanfare, online reviews

Fanfare reviews copyright © 2016 by Fanfare, Inc. Used by permission.

a simply fabulous performance

Those of us who have periodically mined the treasures on the YouTube web site can rejoice unreservedly that videos held there are set to receive critical attention, too. I reviewed James Kreger previously for Fanfare as cellist in a Richard Strauss disc on Guild (Don Quixote on Guild 7204: Fanfare 39:2); this is the shortest of Kreger’s videos on offer, but no less valuable for it.

Filmed in black and white in 1972, this performance of Chopin’s wonderful Introduction and Polonaise brillante is caught with Kreger’s friend and colleague, the late David Golub. There is great seriousness to the Introduction, Kreger’s cello singing with the most vocal cantabile imaginable. Chopin’s demands for piano are easily met by Golub, whose fleet fingers capture just the right sense of improvisatory zeal; the remarkable passage that leads into the Polonaise for both cello and piano is conquered, in terms of effectiveness, as few have before. At times on the video, cello and piano keyboard are superimposed, but only when musically relevant to do so. Kreger seems keen to emphasize the lyrical side of Chopin throughout the piece, which results in the more unbuttoned passages becoming even more emphasized and effective.

The black and white picture is a touch grainy, but frankly that just adds to the appeal. One can pay Kreger no greater tribute to say he loses little in comparison to the great Rostropovich in this piece (and, yes, a little search on YouTube will furnish you with an appropriate comparison in that regard). Rostropovich wears his heart on his sleeve more, perhaps; Kreger’s sense of style seems just that little bit more right. There’s more Chopin, less Kreger, resulting in a simply fabulous performance. —Colin Clarke

What a performance he gives!

Eight and a quarter minutes of sheer delight is what we have here: James Kreger and the late David Golub at their youthful best, indulging in Chopin’s little orgy of melody and virtuosity. It is great to see as well as hear these artists in the full flush of youth and their early mastery. They make a feast of this work, which of course need not be taken too seriously, cobbled together as it was from two separate pieces.

But what fun it is for a cellist, and what fun the youthful artist we see in this video from a few years back seems to have in performing. And, I need hardly emphasize, what a performance he gives! His friend and colleague, an American pianist who seemed destined for greatness when his life was cut short by cancer, looks to be in a much more sober mood, but his playing does not reflect that and together they offer a performance which just rocks along.

In his current interview with Jerry Dubins, James notes that he is entirely comfortable with his live performances being seen and heard on YouTube or other public media. Well he might be, when he can offer such playing as is to be seen and heard here. I don’t think I heard a fleck of imperfection in a piece which can at the very least be described as challenging. There is lovely tone throughout and virtuoso playing in the Polonaise.

The sonics are pretty good, if not the very best heard in some of the cellist’s other audio-visual offerings (and audio only, as well). The cello is well captured, although the miking does not pick up overtones quite as well as in the Brahms Sonata reviewed elsewhere in this issue. The piano sound is natural, with barely a touch of the wooden tonal quality I often hear from YouTube. By all means take a few moments to enjoy this, for splendid playing and great fun!—James Forrest

tender, touching tone…
a dazzling display of virtuoso technique

Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise brillante for piano and cello is not all of a piece, by which is meant that its two halves were not originally composed together for the same occasion, as James Kreger explained in our interview. In 1829, visiting the estate of Prince Antoni Henryk Radziwiłł, Chopin wrote the Polonaise for the Prince’s presumably talented piano-playing daughter, Princess Wanda, to whom he gave a number of lessons. Although he taught both of the Prince’s daughters, it is said that he had more than a musical interest in Princess Wanda, and in a letter to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski Chopin indicated he wanted Princess Wanda to practice it. (“I should like Princess Wanda to practice it. She is a beautiful girl of seventeen and it was charming to guide her delicate fingers.”)

A year later, in 1830, Chopin wrote the Introduction for a performance by Józef Kaczynski of the now joined-together movements, but then turned around and dedicated the work to Joseph Merk. In a letter dated 1831, Chopin wrote, “Merk is the only violoncellist I really respect.” That love affair was short-lived, however, for soon after, Chopin met the even greater and more famous French cellist Auguste-Joseph Franchomme in Paris and a new relationship was forged. Together, in 1833, they wrote the Grand Duo concertant for piano and cello, based on themes from Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le diable; and with Chopin’s blessing, Franchomme then rewrote the cello part to the Polonaise. The friendship between the two men was still going strong when, in 1846, Chopin dedicated his G-Minor Cello Sonata to Franchomme.

The Introduction and Polonaise brillante, being only one of four pieces by Chopin to feature or include cello—the others being the early Piano Trio in G Minor and the aforementioned Grand Duo and Cello Sonata—has been taken up by cellists far and wide. But I think I can say without hesitation or reservation that this performance by James Kreger and pianist David Golub is one of the best I’ve heard. The two musicians play to each other’s strengths and to Chopin’s innate, unerring sense for the melodic line. Kreger sings the cello line with tender, touching tone in the Introduction and with a dazzling display of virtuoso technique in the Polonaise.

It’s easy to see and hear in this splendid video clip that the cello part to the Polonaise had to have been conceived by a Paganini-like master of the cello, for Chopin could not have come up with the murderous double stops, harmonics, passages high on the A-string practically off the end of the fingerboard, broken octave glissandos, and other tricks of the trade that only a consummate showman on the instrument would know how to write and play. David Golub makes fine work of the supporting piano part, which is by no means without its signature Chopin moments, but this particular piece is the cellist’s show. I hesitate to say that James Kreger steals it completely, but he surely leaves the viewer and listener with a memorable impression. —Jerry Dubins