Classics reconsidered: Heifetz's recording of Korngold's Violin Concerto

Gramophone Thu 9th June 2016

Jeremy Nicholas and Rob Cowan discuss the premiere recording from 1953

Jeremy Nicholas For some reason I have always been fiercely defensive about this work and, despite his less than agreeable personality, the violinist who made the first recording of it. There was a time as late as the 1990s when some critics and broadcasters of a certain hue loved to look down their noses at Korngold in general and his Violin Concerto in particular. Why? Because he wrote film music (horror!) and the concerto uses four themes that Korngold had dreamt up originally for the silver screen (beyond the pale!).

How clever they were, these arbiters of musical taste, each time Korngold’s music came up for discussion, to repeat that stale old canard ‘More corn than gold’ coined by critic Irving Kolodin in the New York Sun after the work’s East Coast premiere. But to the case: for me, this recording of Korngold’s Violin Concerto from January 10, 1953, made, appropriately, on Sound Stage 9 at Hollywood’s Republic Studios, has never been surpassed.

Rob Cowan Well, with your last three words you’ve just about rendered my contribution redundant, Jeremy. Anyone who has heard the teenage Korngold’s Sinfonietta, which was keenly promoted by some of the greatest German maestros of the pre-war period (and here I’m talking both world wars), will know that Korngold’s luscious style was well and truly in place a good 20 to 30 years before this – or the film music – was composed. I’ve never understood why critics have hurled verbal detritus at this wonderful music.

I remember years ago talking to the great violinist Louis Kaufman (the eloquent fiddle in classic scores for Gone with the Wind, Wuthering Heights and so on) and he seemed quite defensive about his ‘weepy work’. Heifetz was of a like heart, and everyone after him who has played the Korngold, no matter how competent and ‘silver-toned’, sounds patronising. They take a ‘naughty-but-nice’ approach, guiltily pushing the calories, whereas Heifetz indulges that inimitable, lean but intense bitter-sweetness, that ‘speaking tone’ with its infinitely varied vibrato, toying with our emotions like some hot-breathed Lolita. He’s ‘the bizz’ as they say. Korngold, like Steiner and Waxman, knew the sort of fiddle sound he wanted (Kaufman, Seidel and Slatkin provided it), so there can’t be any doubt that Heifetz is ‘authentic’.

JN Absolutely, though of course Heifetz wasn’t in the picture (if you’ll pardon the pun) when Korngold began writing the concerto. Bronislav Huberman, a violinist of a very different type and temperament, provided the initial impetus, and the first two movements were written with him in mind. Also, Bronislav Gimpel claimed to have played the work before Heifetz (though this must have been in private and before it was complete, as Heifetz definitely had some influence on the technically demanding finale). The sound world of the whole score seems so empathetic with Heifetz’s, I wonder if Korngold revisited what he had previously written once Heifetz was on board?

It’s quite an exotic line-up for a violin concerto: apart from the inclusion of a bass clarinet, contrabassoon and celesta, there’s a glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, tubular bells, gong and bass drum. And here’s the thing: though you’d be hard pressed to hear all these individually on this recording, does it matter?

RC I know, of course, that Heifetz wasn’t ‘in the picture’, it’s just that when it came to prompting a lump in the throat for the movies, his style was prototypical. Virtually every movie concertmaster followed his stylistic lead. It’s worth noting too that there’s a concert recording by Heifetz under Efrem Kurtz from March 1947 (out on Music & Arts), a performance given just six weeks after the premiere in February with Vladimir Golschmann in St Louis. Interesting that the balance there is rather more natural than it is on this famous version under Wallenstein – and the performance itself is, if anything, even more exciting.

You allude to the exotic scoring but for those of us brought up on that wonderful old vinyl album Heifetz’s all-pervading presence sidelined the orchestra’s contribution to a mere ‘accompaniment’ (as was quite often the case with Heifetz’s orchestral records). Later recordings by the likes of Shaham, Mutter, Perlman, Schmid, Znaider and Juillet – all exceedingly fine players – admit more in the way of subsidiary orchestral detail (Shaham and Previn being perhaps the most revealing in that respect). They all act as essential supplements to this classic. I suppose the most overwhelming aspect of Heifetz’s performance – whether under Wallenstein or under Kurtz – is the intensity of those leaps into the instrument’s upper regions, and the accuracy of his intonation. It’s fearless playing,

JN Yes, and talking of which there is one particular moment I want to pinpoint in this recording – it’s in the slow movement – which epitomises that intensity and which no other violinist achieves in quite the same way (and I’d add Benedetti, Hahn and Capuçon to your list of fine exponents of the Korngold). I would go so far as saying it is by a unique feature such as this (there are others) that Heifetz owns the concerto, a gesture helped by the much brisker tempo he chooses for this movement (Mutter and Shaham, both under Previn, for all their virtues are too indulgent for me).

The climax comes at bars 55 and 56 (5'09"-5'12") where Korngold takes the soloist soaring up to two Ds a couple of octaves above the stave. Compare the way Heifetz leans into these notes, how he bows them and then phrases the succeeding four semiquavers (nearly two octaves below) to how everyone else plays the same passage. It is only a fleeting detail but typical Heifetz. He makes the same effect at the climax of the slow movement of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy (with Steinberg and Sargent).

RC Yes, this is typical of the way Heifetz would hone a sequence of a mere few bars to such a high level of incandescence that no one else could come within miles of him. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the passage you cite suits Heifetz to perfection.

You make the point that Huberman (who was, as you say, a sort of prime mover for the work) was ‘a very different sort of violinist’ and I find myself wondering whether he could have coped with ‘two Ds a couple of octaves above the stave’. Much as I love his playing, as reported on disc, by the time Korngold was writing the piece Huberman’s technical facility wasn’t quite what it had been 20 or so years earlier. So I’d wager a bet that this and similar passages were the product of Heifetz’s influence – if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

Think of his own transcriptions where the demands he places on himself (and on those who dare to compete with him) run roughly parallel with the high-flying demands of the concerto. There, too, the bottom line is maximum expressive intensity.

JN I’m sure you’re right about Huberman. Having seen the first two movements, he wouldn’t commit to a performance date, I think because the writing was technically beyond him. So Korngold invited another violinist round to have a go (Gimpel?) who made a complete hash of it, enough to dissuade Korngold from continuing. I have it on first-hand authority that Heifetz visited Gimpel and picked up the score of the concerto which was lying on Gimpel’s piano and asked if he could have a look at it. It was only after this when Heifetz voiced his enthusiasm that Korngold’s faith in the work was restored. Heifetz actually asked him to increase the technical demands of the finale!

And how wonderful that the concerto – sidelined for so long – is now, if not staple repertoire, certainly no longer an oddity. Its deft orchestration, richly-rewarding, taxing solo part and succession of glorious themes make it one of the stand-out works of a remarkable composer.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Gramophone magazine. To find out more about our various subscription options, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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