He was universally acclaimed as the violinist of the century. But for many, that wasnt enough.
Even his harshest detractors had to admit that Jascha Heifetz (1900 - 1987) had the greatest technique in history (and the few recordings of his concerts prove that his precision wasnt a studio fabrication). Even more amazing, his fabulous talent was fully formed by the time of his first teenaged records, cut weeks after his sensational 1917 Carnegie Hall debut. Just listen to how effortlessly he tosses off Bazzinis fiendishly difficult "Ronde des Lutins" with breakneck speed, staggering technique and attitude galore.
In art, as in politics, radical youths mellow in middle age and gravitate toward a more conservative middle ground, but not Heifetz. Rather than embrace mellow maturity, Heifetz maintained throughout his half-century career the fleet precision of his initial fame.
Most artists dream in vain of fending off technical decline. Heifetz, though, faced the opposite problem. Many violin devotees accuse Heifetz of never evolving a distinctive personal vision. Indeed, it has become fashionable to flail Heifetz for an emotional reticence at odds with the heart-on-sleeve style we normally expect of our fiddlers. But instead of damning him for what he wasn't (and never pretended to be), it seems far better to hail him for seizing upon a unique personality and never straying. Throughout his career, Heifetz projected his sensational technique and pure tone with affirmative athletic confidence. Even in his last performances, he sounds like the most youthful violinist on record.
Critics also flayed Heifetz for playing too fast, but thats largely an illusion. Try this: imagine a favorite melody (or even just a scale) with sliding, blended notes. Now imagine it again at the same tempo but with the notes short and clipped. The latter always sounds faster, even though it isnt. Thats how it was with Heifetz his precision seemed much quicker than it really was. Even so, the perception of velocity is genuinely thrilling.
Ultimately, Heifetz was accused of being cold and mechanical. But his technical perfection, while unsentimental, was still full of sentiment. His subtle inflection enabled him to slip beneath the surface without disturbing the formal design.
A deeply personal vision is not the only route to elicit the meaning in music. Take Heifetzs forthright Bach solo sonatas, which succeed precisely because their direct simplicity focuses attention on the purity of Bachs conception. His approach honors the music, not the interpreter. The sheer transparency of Heifetzs work lends it a timeless quality that never becomes tiresome.
For nearly his entire career, Heifetz was an exclusive RCA artist. In 1994, RCA/BMG honored him in a suitably massive but utterly unwieldy way: a reissue of all seventy-plus hours of his commercial recordings. But rather than roll the discs out gradually, as it had sensibly done with its comparable 82-CD Toscanini legacy, the Heifetz Collection was available only as a 65-CD box.
While completists may have rejoiced, to others not only was such a huge box unaffordable but the very idea was absurd. It takes several playings to fully absorb any new disc, and at that rate the Heifetz Collection would have required months of exclusive attention. Finally, RCA released the 46 volumes separately, challenging collectors to make informed choices among Heifetzs several versions of his many signature works. Unfortunately, the choices are quite simple.
For most artists, recording quality is at best a secondary concern. But with Heifetz its crucial, since the exquisite subtlety of his tone was such an essential part of his artistry. His electrical 78s were uniformly dreadful shrill, crude and overloaded. Often his instrument barely sounded like a violin and the fidelity of his acousticals had been more convincing. The Heifetz Collection transfers make no effort to improve upon the originals, and that's a shame. Indeed, the CD of his sublime 1940 Beethoven "Archduke" Trio has a nasty nasal tone and annoying swishes, clicks and distortion that were absent from earlier LP transfers. An edition of this significance warrants distinction in sound as well as content, and there's simply no excuse for BMG, with its vast resources and original masters, to have churned out such rotten CDs, especially when Biddulph, Naxos and other independent reissue labels have done far better using commercial pressings.
1950, though, was a watershed year. Suddenly, the aural clouds were lifted and Heifetz records sounded sweet and clear. Heifetzs interpretations barely wavered through the years, but the difference in presentation is astounding. So heres the rule: any Heifetz recording from 1950 on wins hands down over a predecessor. The dividing line really is that sharp. (But please click here for an update.)
The one early Heifetz series you shouldnt bypass is those amazing acousticals. Unless you always insist on hi-fi sound (and I'm sorry if you do -- you're missing some great stuff), Heifetz's first records remain every bit as astounding as they must have been upon first release. Unfortunately, RCA sells them only in a 3-CD set; for a single disc compilation, I can vouch for Biddulph LAB-015.
The early electricals boast more realistic balances than the remakes, with Heifetz imbedded in the overall texture rather than spotlighted, as he would be later. Theres also more a sense of partnership with colleagues, whom he would later dominate. But the early stuff is tossed into 2-CD boxes (which partially defeats the purpose of having broken down the integral edition) with woefully inadequate notes (a measly 12 sentences for the 2-1/2 hours of music in volume 4). And the sound falsifies Heifetzs exquisite tone. So no recommendations here. (But please click here for an update.)
Heifetzs brilliant and exciting stereo versions of the most popular concertos are on a 5-disc set, awkwardly packaged in a flimsy cardboard sleeve containing a double and triple box. Even so, this is prime stuff. The Brahms/Tchaikovsky and Beethoven/Mendelssohn concerti are available on single discs in RCAs "Living Stereo" series, but you shouldnt miss his fabulous Sibelius, Prokofiev or Bruch.
Incidentally, don't be put off by the modern concertos Heifetz commissioned and championed. All were written to flaunt his talent in the idiom of the previous century and boast a lush romantic sound, seasoned with only a dash of modern spice. Heifetzs renditions of "his" concerti by Korngold, Rosza, Walton, Gruenberg and Castelnuovo-Tedesco are all definitive and wonderful.
More than most superstar soloists, Heifetz reveled in chamber music. In 1940 he joined his equally prodigious cello contemporary Emmanuel Feuermann (who would die the next year) and pianist Artur Rubinstein for Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms trios (marvelously played but miserably recorded). A decade later, he and Rubinstein teamed with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky for the Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn trios; this time their brilliance was captured in adequate sound.
In 1961, Heifetz and Piatigorsky launched a series of concerts and records with violist William Primrose and other invited colleagues. Even the heavier fare burst with sheer life-affirming joy. Dont miss their dazzling versions of octets, sextets, quintets and trios by Mozart, Spohr, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Franck, Turina and Arensky.
Heifetz also waxed many violin and piano sonatas, mostly with his permanent accompanists Emmanuel Bay through 1953 and Brooks Smith thereafter. Beyond a full set of the Beethoven, theres Brahms, Faure, Grieg, Saint-Saens, Respighi, Debussy, Strauss and Bloch. Youll also find lots of short "encore" pieces sprinkled throughout; his Gershwin transcriptions, in particular, are awesome.
Of a few previously unissued records, one is truly stunning a 1968 Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence sextet that begins and ends ablaze. Was Heifetz a cold automaton? No way!
Although his fame arose when the 1900s had barely begun, no artist in the last 80 years has displaced Heifetz as "the violinist of the century." On the verge of entering the next century, his fabulous recorded legacy reminds us why.
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Heifetzs recorded performances (post-1949) are so consistently wonderful that its tempting to just list the contents of that portion of the Heifetz Collection in lieu of any attempt at evaluation or specific recommendations. (But of course, I wont.) Even though Heifetz was equally successful in all genres of music, it seems useful to consider his many gems by category.
Violinists often consider concertos to be their primary showcase, and rightfully so theres something especially thrilling to hear a lone violin holding its own against the onslaught of a full orchestra or set off against the various instrumental choirs, each with its distinctive timbre.
Beginning with the Brahms in February 1955, Heifetz began to rerecord the most popular concertos in then-new stereo technology. All 12 now are packaged together awkwardly on a 5-CD set (volumes 11 - 15). They all are magnificently played and well-recorded and supercede earlier mono versions. In their order of recording dates, they are:
While the earlier versions of the others can be overlooked, the 1939 Brahms and 1937 Prokofiev (both with the Boston Symphony) were immeasurably enhanced by the legendary conductor Sergei Koussevitzsky, who endowed them with a depth that meshed nicely with Heifetz, without being crushed beneath his overpowering presence. (The sonic quality of the Brahms, though, is vile.) Theyre both on volume 4.
Especially cherishable as mementos of Heifetzs devotion to his art are the numerous concertos he commissioned or premiered. Naturally, they all were written to showcase his personal talents, highlighting his soaring tone and phenomenal virtuosity. Even though only the Walton seems to have caught on with others, they all sound thoroughly convincing in Heifetzs hands. They also belie their dates of composition, as they are couched strongly in the idiom of the romantic era (except the Gruenberg, which is quite jazzy). All are in good, clean mono (except the Gruenberg, which is horribly coarse and crude):
Finally, we should note the other concertos which Heifetz recorded. All gleam with Heifetzs trademark style and precision. The first three are of particular interest:
Other Orchestral Works
While perhaps not rising to the musical heights (and occasional longeurs and pretensions) of the concertos, these shorter pieces, too, nestle the solo violin within the power and variety of the full orchestra. Five of the most popular are collected on volume 22, aptly entitled "Showpieces:" Lalos Symphonie Espagnole, Sarasates Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), Chaussons Poeme, and Saint-Saenss Havanaise and Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso. They range from the lyric Poeme, which Heifetz plays without the accustomed schmaltz, to the wild frenzy of Gypsy Airs, in which he invokes the composers own astounding 1904 manic record (which can be heard on Opal CD 9851). Also brilliantly virtuostic are Ravels Tzigane (volume 8) and Waxmans Carmen Fantasy (volume 21). All were recorded in the early fifties and are in clear mono.
For something more gentle with orchestra, theres the two Beethoven Romances, played with classical elegance (RCA Victor Symphony, William Steinberg; volume 8), the sentimental Tchaikovsky Serenade Melancolique (with a Chamber Orchestra; volume 12), a Vitali Chaconne (actually accompanied by organ, volume 24) and the nifty little Suite by Christian Sindig (volume 9).
Incidentally, theres a fascinating instance in an earlier (1937) recording of the Zigeunerweisen thats worth noting, as it casts a rare and unusual light on the image of Heifetz as an unshakable perfectionist. Already in a second take, Heifetz comes to the third of four repetitions of a delicious phrase, muffs the climactic note and then reacts by digging into the end of the phrase ferociously, as if to scold himself (or perhaps his fiddle). Its a passing moment (on volume 4, disc 1, track 17 at 0:23 or on Naxos 110943, track 11 at 7:19), but a revealing one.
Although he never recorded any string quartets, Heifetz performed and recorded substantial amounts of nearly every other type of non-orchestral music, from unaccompanied solos to octets. His magic invests the larger ensemble works with a light, agile fleetness that transforms their thick textures, but often at the risk of slighting their weightier aspects. In most instances, Heifetz and company present propulsive readings that fully preserve the musical integrity and style, even though they are a world apart from the equally valid soul-searching depths plumbed by Casals and others.
The Mendelssohn is the only real octet in the Heifetz canon, but its magnificent. Some critics flail his 1961 reading (on volume 35) as way too rushed. Indeed its quite breathless, but lets not forget that it was written not by a mature, deliberative golden master but by a 16-year old! Heifetz also recorded a double quartet by Spohr (volume 25), with great delicacy and restraint.
-- The prize here -- and one of the glories of this entire Collection -- is the Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence (volume 39). Taped at one of Heifetzs last recording sessions in 1968 but not previously released, it fairly bursts with overt passion, fully consistent with its Slavic character. No one listening to the first (or last) few bars could possibly claim with a straight face that Heifetz was an inhuman automaton. The Brahms Sextet, Op. 36 (volume 41) is gentle and buoyant.
These come in two varieties all-strings, and strings with piano. Of the two Mozart string quintets Heifetz recorded, K. 515 in C Major (on volume 34) is pure joy, while K. 516 in g minor (on volume 26) is suitably darker but still impulsive and more rococo than really serious. The Brahms, Op. 111 (on volume 28) emerges bathed in light, as Heifetz dominates the texture. There are three piano quintets: an ecstatically joyous Dvorak (on volume 41), an aptly sullen Franck (on volume 33) and a Schubert (on volume 37) that downplays the depth of the first two movements so that the latter two can explode in feathery joy.
Heifetz bypassed the incredibly rich literature of string quartets and only recorded a single piano quartet, the Brahms Op. 60 (on volume 42). Its a beautifully realized reading in which the constantly shifting moods are nicely integrated.
Trios, too, come in two styles with and without piano. While most of the famous works in the genre are for violin, cello and piano, perhaps as a sign of his devotion to string playing Heifetz paid exceptional attention to the far rarer all-string type (for violin, viola and cello). As his colleagues, he chose William Primrose, one of the preeminent violists of the century, and cellists Emanuel Feuermann and then Gregor Piatigorsky. Four Beethoven string trios (volumes 10 and 42) and his Serenade (volume 25), while admittedly not Beethovens most inspired writing, are given respectful but emotionally flat and uninvolved readings. A Schubert trio (volume 37) fares no better. Despite crude 1941 recordings, the Mozart Divertimento and Dohnanyi Serenade are delightful. But the biggest surprise is the scintillating Trio in C by Jean Francaix (on volume 43), a brief frolic that bursts with mischievous youthful joy.
In the same week as they cut the Mozart and Dohnanyi string trios, Heifetz and Feuermann paired with pianist Artur Rubenstein to record glorious trios of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms (volumes 29 and 32); despite crude recordings and even worse CD transfers, they swagger with self-assured style and are among the great glories of our legacy. A decade later, Heifetz began his long and productive partnership with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and they cut the Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn First and Ravel trios with Rubenstein. The three come across as co-equal partners, only in part abetted by the treble-deficient recordings that de-emphasize the violin range. The Ravel is more powerful than we have become accustomed, but beautifully captures his unique brand of unsentimental impressionism. The Mendelssohn is fabulous a perfect presentation of this gossamer delight, but with due regard for the gravity of its minor tonality.
The Heifetz/Piatigorsky series of piano trios resumed in the stereo era with pianist Leonard Pennario through 1963, and then Jacob Lateiner. The Beethoven Op. 1 # 1 (volume 30) achieves a nice balance between youthful derivativeness and hints of the budding genius yet to emerge. The later Beethoven Op. 70 # 2 (volume 28) and Mendelssohn # 2 (volume 34) are thoroughly gratifying but without any particular spark of excellence. Volume 38 presents previously unreleased tapings of the Schubert Second and Brahms Second, very fine indeed, but with the balance skewed toward Heifetz. The darker, rustic character of two Dvorak trios are nicely captured in volumes 33 and 39. Finally, if youre willing to venture off the beaten path, volume 27 has trios by Arensky and Turina; while neither blazes with inspiration, theyre thoroughly enjoyable and played to the hilt.
Duos, Sonatas and Solo Pieces
The most intimate form of chamber music is the combination of just two instruments, requiring the players to meld their personalities into a convincing whole. With such reduced forces, theres no opportunity to hide for even a moment beneath accompaniment or anothers solo turn, and the spotlight is mercilessly on the star performer.
While the most common combination of two instruments is the sonata with piano, Heifetz recorded several duos with two of his string colleagues. The most famous duos are by Mozart, of which Heifetz and violist William Primrose recorded the second in 1941 (on volume 9), but while the playing is precise, its just not stylish or eloquent. Far more impressive is their 1941 record of the kaleidoscopic Halvorsen transcription of Handels Passacaglia (volume 9). Heifetz recorded his other duos with Piatigorsky, including an equally fine 1963 cello version of the same Passacaglia (volume 30). Their other duos, all wonderfully played, are of a dry and bitter Kodaly Sonata (volume 27), an elegant and exact Boccherini Sonata (volume 28), a rustic-sounding version of Stravinskys neoclassic Suite Italienne (volume 31), a Toch Divertimento (volume 35) that sends off sparks of excitement, and a Martinu Duo (volume 44) that begins searchingly and culminates in an exuberant double whirlwind.
The most significant series of sonatas for violin and piano is Beethovens. Heifetz recorded all ten and they comprise volume 16; earlier versions of #s 3, 8 and 9, the latter with Benno Moiseiwitsch, are on volumes 7 and 10. Some consider Heifetzs readings to be superb examples of self-effacing musicianship, while others dismiss them as superficial and aloof. Perhaps this dichotomy is best heard in the first movement of the "Kreutzer" (#9) where Heifetz at first sounds brittle and unyielding. But the problem with the more common overtly emotional approach is that the first movement then overwhelms the other two, which in comparison are slight and backward-looking. So Heifetzs low-octane first movement, while at first disappointing, succeeds more fully than many others in integrating this top-heavy work. Indeed, it seems fair to characterize Heifetzs Beethoven sonatas as respectful of the music and its inherent dignity, focussing upon presenting the musical materials and detailing the musical logic, while leaving the listener to infer his or her own deeper thoughts. The resulting impression may not have as much initial appeal as a more distinctive reading, but neither does it wear thin over time.
Moving through the others chronologically, Heifetz recorded only three of Mozarts Violin Sonatas, K. 296, 378 and 454 (the latter two twice). All are wonderfully stylish, with the remakes (on volumes 24 and 26) faster, more sharply etched and of course better recorded than the earlier versions (on volume 9). The Handel Sonata # 15 (volume 9) is a stilted little work which Heifetz plays well but without much enthusiasm. Despite its title, the Schubert Fantasie, D. 934 is akin to a sonata and Heifetz suitably plays it and the Schubert Sonatina # 3 (both on volume 8) much in the vein of his Beethoven. In the Brahms Sonata # 3 (volume 8), the brilliant William Kapell inspires Heifetz to dizzying heights of expression. His Grieg Sonata # 2 (volume 9) has suitable strength and dignity. Of late 19th century sonatas, Strausss (volume 32) is of grand and ardent epic sweep, while Faures (volume 45) is full of lighter, Gallic charm; the Saint-Saens (volume 45) lies between the German and French sensitivities.
Moving into the twentieth century, the exquisite Debussy Violin Sonata (volume 44) is played with tender directness and receives an atypically glistening recording for RCA in 1950. Heifetz provides definitive versions of youthful sonatas by Ferguson and Khachaturian (Karen, not the more famous Aram), both on volume 43; theyre pleasant and the latter is graced with a magnificent andante and a bounding finale; his accompanist in these is Lillian Steuber, a colleague when he taught at USC. The only modern sonatas Heifetz recorded that actually sound contemporary are Blochs (volume 8), of which the second, a "mystical poem" is especially striking.
Given the bravura and self-confidence he always projected, it seems strange that the only unaccompanied pieces Heifetz recorded were the six Bach Sonatas and Partitas (volume 16). While this is not a field crowded with masterworks, it does include the magnificent Paganini Caprices, of which Heifetz played only a few, and even then with added piano. As for the Bach, it has aroused the same ambivalence as his Beethoven Sonatas, with detractors bemoaning an absence of feeling or period flavor. To me, though, Heifetzs objectivity is a matter of entirely appropriate respect for music so inherently great that it has no need of interpretive gloss.
Encores and Short Pieces
In light of his fame, it seems incredible that the first seventeen years of Heifetzs recording career consisted entirely of the brief items that served as encores for his recital programs; thus, it was not until 1934 that he was able to wax his first complete works (the Strauss Sonata followed by Mozart and Glazunov concertos). His 52 acoustic records are collected on volume 1 and his first decade of electricals are on volume 2. Heifetz kept recording these little gems through the very end of his career. Indeed, he devoted his penultimate recording session to nine of them and he included six more in his very last recital, given in 1972 and comprising the final volume (46) of the Heifetz Collection. Heifetz clearly loved them deeply, perhaps because their brevity enabled him to crystallize his talent more than in larger, more varied works.
These pieces range from blinding virtuosity to deep meditation and are sprinkled throughout the volumes of the Heifetz Collection. They also comprised his only vacation from RCA from 1944 to 1946, when the pop-oriented Decca label recorded 51 miniatures, including "White Christmas" and two duets with Bing Crosby, in the hope of scoring a few hit singles; they're now collected on volume 19 and the fidelity's far better than RCA's at the time. Amid the huge variety of such material, somehow his set of Gershwin preludes and songs, recorded in 1965 with Brooks Smith and now on volume 40, seems especially transcendental, brilliantly presenting these overly-familiar pieces in a way which at once distills and then extends their essential spirit.
As great as Heifetzs inspired concerto, chamber and duo recordings are and will always remain, they will always be set along side great versions by other artists, both those who have already stood before the microphone (or acoustic horn) and others yet to arise among future generations. Perhaps when all is said and done, it is Heifetzs deeply personal encores that best represent his unique and irreplaceable art.
Whatever your taste, I hope these observations help guide you to sample the art of the "Violinist of the Century" while the individual volumes of the Heifetz Collection remain available.
March 2001 Update: It's been a mere two years since I wrote that, and the Heifetz Collection already has disappeared from retail. But there's a magnificent recompense that cures its major defect. Naxos has just released the first Heifetz series of electrical concerto records on seven CDs and they're a revelation! While the BMG versions were shrill and painful to hear, these transfers by wizard Mark Obert-Thorn emerge as magnificently rich and full. As violin historian Tully Potter points out in his liner notes, Heifetz used gut strings to offset the brilliance of his technique, and his early electrical records captured this wondrous blend with a truly remarkable warmth. Moreover, unlike in the stereo remakes, Heifetz's trademark precision and propulsion are tempered by repose and feeling that yield a far more satisfying and human experience. These fabulous discs rescue the pre-1950 Heifetz records from BMG's atrocious sound and compel renewed appreciation for the depth of Heifetz's artistry. And all this at a super-budget price! Here are the specific volumes:
If the lessons of the past are any guide, grab the Naxos volumes now before they, too, disappear!
Copyright 1999 and 2001 by Peter Gutmann