Georg Kulenkampff (23 January 1898 - 4 October 1948) was one of the world's most prominent concert violinists, one of the best-known German virtuosi of the 1930s and 1940s. Widely considered one of the finest violinists of the 20th century, Kulenkampff was known for his interpretations of works from the Romantic period. Kulenkampff gave the premiere performance of Robert Schumann's violin concerto and made the first recording of the piece; additionally, his performances of the violin concertos of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Glazunov, and Bruch are considered among the finest on record. Only the fact that his recording career coincided with the Nazi era, coupled with his early death from encephalitis, has prevented his name from being better known to modern listeners.
Georg Kulenkampff was the son of a well-to-do merchant family in Bremen. He took an interest in the violin from a very young age, and from 1904 (aged 6) began to receive instruction from the concertmaster of the Bremen Philharmonic Orchestra, and afterwards with its conductor Ernst Wendel. He then received lessons and much encouragement from Leopold Auer (teacher of Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbalist, Nathan Milstein and others) in Dresden, and made a concert debut in 1912 as solo violinist. On Auer's recommendation he was sent to study with Willy Heß at the Berlin Music Hochschule and became director of the Hochschule Orchestra.
Kulenkampff suffered health problems in his young life, and towards the end of the First World War he returned to his home town to become concert-master of the Bremen Philharmonic Orchestra. However he made rapid progress, especially as a soloist, and in 1923 he became a professor-in-ordinary at the Berlin Music Hochschule. He taught there until 1926, when his solo career became all-absorbing, but resumed teaching there in 1931 until his departure from Germany in 1944. At the same time he gave concerts throughout Germany and, increasingly, in various parts of Europe, and had a busy broadcasting career. In 1927, he performed the Bach Double Violin Concerto in D minor with Alma Moodie (a student of Carl Flesch) and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO)
In 1935 he formed a very celebrated trio with the pianist Edwin Fischer and the cellist Enrico Mainardi, in which he remained active until 1948. At his death he was replaced as violinist by Wolfgang Schneiderhan. He also played in piano duos, especially with Georg Solti and Wilhelm Kempff: with Solti he recorded the Brahms sonatas, Mozart's 20th sonata and Beethoven's Kreutzer sonata (No. 9) (all Decca), and there is also a Kreutzer with Kempff (DGG, 1935). His (Decca) recording of the Brahms Double Concerto with Mainardi, under the baton of Carl Schuricht, is distinguished.
In 1937 he was particularly associated with the premiere of the rediscovered Violin Concerto in D minor of Robert Schumann, which had been studied and suppressed by Joseph Joachim, but which Kulenkampff now revived with the help of George Schunemann and Paul Hindemith, whose own compositions were already banned by the Nazi authorities. The addition of this work to the repertoire was a very important and successful affair, and soon afterwards Kulenkampff made the world premiere recording of it, still considered authoritative. His pre-war recordings of the Beethoven (BPO under Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt) and Mendelssohn concerti are also considered outstanding: he maintained the Mendelssohn in performance despite the ban on his music, and used the cadenzas of Fritz Kreisler.
Kulenkampff gave various other world premieres, notable of works by Ottorino Respighi (Violin Sonata No. 2) and by Jean Sibelius. He was very much in demand and very busy during the Nazi period, as an "Aryan" musician, though he did not subscribe to the racial theory and, by virtue of his importance as a German performer, was able to maintain proscribed parts of the repertoire.
In 1940 he moved to Potsdam, and in 1944, with increasingly unsatisfactory demands from the prevailing powers, he left Germany for Switzerland. From 1943 there is a legendary live recording from Berlin of a performance of the Sibelius concerto conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler with the BPO. From Switzerland he continued to develop his international solo career, and he became successor to Carl Flesch at the Conservatory in Lucerne. He was first violin in the Kulenkampff Quartet from 1944. Among his students was Ruggiero Ricci.
Kulenkampff died in Schaffhausen, Switzerland of encephalitis (spinal paralysis) at the age of only 50, suffering a rapid onset soon after his last concert. His writings appeared posthumously in 1952 under the title, 'A Violinist's Observations' (Geigerische Betrachtungen).