Toscanini and Heifetz set the highest of standards
Monday, February 6, 2012
I’ve written at some length on this site about my allegiance to Tito Gobbi, who, as much anyone, kindled my fascination with and love of opera and whose 100-plus recordings formed the treasured backbone of my LP collection. I was privileged to see Gobbi on stage on numerous occasions and it goes without saying that he merits automatic inclusion in my personal Hall of Fame. But for the nominations I want to champion here, I turn to two artists who, regretfully, I never had the privilege of meeting or seeing live – those two titans of the gramophone, Jascha Heifetz and Arturo Toscanini.
I haven’t even seen the monumental 104-disc Complete Original Jacket Collection of the finest violinist the world has ever known, but I’ve been privileged over the years to own and enjoy a great many of the recordings included within that record-breaking set. Heifetz made his first recording just days after his Carnegie Hall debut in 1917 – some years even before Gramophone first saw the light of day – and he has been a crucial mainstay of the catalogue from the outset.
His recordings were not always readily available in Britain though and I first started exploring his work, when I could find it, after reading a column by Bernard Levin, who came across a rare cache of Heifetz.
There’s something about the violin – on its own or with an orchestra – that can lift the soul, tug at the heartstrings and transform one’s whole outlook on life. I’m in love with the cadre of brilliant young violinists who are rewriting the catalogue – the likes of Julia Fischer, Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowicz, Lisa Batiashvili, Arabella Steinbacher, Janine Jansen – but there is a genius about Heifetz, an ease, facility, effortless virtuosity, that will always be unique and our lives would be diminished were it not for his legacy. The complete collection spans 55 years of Heifetz’s career, from that 1917 debut to his last public recital in 1972.
RCA’s old ‘Heifetz Collection’, in many, many volumes, and probably now extinct and replaced by the Original Jacket Collection, has never been far from my CD player. The precious ‘Concerto Collection’, quaintly labelled as Volumes 11 to 15, includes iconic Heifetz readings of the Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Glazunov and Bruch (No 1) concertos. I just can’t imagine the likes of Paganini’s Caprices or various miscellaneous showstoppers ever being rendered with greater fluidity and seemingly effortless brilliance.
Volume 5 of that marvellous old collection includes the Brahms double with Emanuel Feuermann and the Beethoven under Toscanini, who was one of Heifetz’s regular collaborator in the 30s. I grew up with Toscanini. On my father’s knee I thrilled to tales of the maestro’s feats and the first 78s I ever heard, played and replayed till the records were worn out, before I had even gone to infants’ school, were of his NBC Symphony Orchestra playing Beethoven’s Seventh – the most perfect composition in the history of the music? – in what must then have been almost the definitive recordings of the ‘nine’ from Carnegie Hall between 1949 and 1952. That sense of palpable, controlled, inevitable, inescapable momentum draws you in to Toscanini’s reading and I can still recall the urgency with which I rushed to rewind the gramophone each time it started to run down, to change the needle when it was wearing out, to turn the records over as the momentum was crassly interrupted every three or four minutes by the inadequacies of the record-making process.
Toscanini’s complete Beethoven symphony cycles are pinnacles of his achievement, but his operatic recordings not only set the standard, they remain some of the finest ever made. As a young cellist, Toscanini was in the pit at La Scala on February 5, 1887, when Verdi conducted the premiere of Otello, the opera which I think represents (together with Falstaff) the summit of Verdi’s achievement. Otello has been well served in the recording studo, but Toscanini’s 1947 live broadcast from New York with Valdengo, Vinay and Nelli stands comparison with the best of them and remains one of my preferred listening choices. His second Falstaff (1950), with Valdengo, Nelli and Merriman, is another gem.
Listen also to his 1951 Verdi Requiem from Carnegie Hall, packaged in Volume 63 of RCA’s old ‘Toscanini Collection’ with a rare Verdi curiosity, his Inno delle nazioni (Hymn of the Nations), composed as Verdi's intended contribution to the musical jubilee at London’s International Exhibition of 1862.
My nominations, then, are Heifetz and Toscanini.