BEETHOVEN. BRAHMS Violin Concertos
‘An old diamond in the rough’ is how Robert C Marsh (Toscanini and the Art of Orchestra Performance; London: 1956) recalled the original Victor 78s of this 1940 Heifetz Studio 8-H recording of the Beethoven. Of the LP reissue he wrote: ‘On the whole, the recording is so dead and artificial that at times the thin line of violin sound reminds one of something from the golden age of Thomas Edison’s tinfoil cylinder rather than 1940.’ Early CD transfers suggested that all was not lost but even they barely anticipated the extraordinary fineness of the sound we now have on this transfer by archivist and restorer Mark Obert-Thorn.
The performance itself is one of the most remarkable the gramophone has ever given us. The visionary, high tessitura violin writing is realised by Heifetz with a technical surety which is indistinguishable, in the final analysis, from his sense of the work as one of Beethoven’s most sublime explorations of that world (in Schiller’s phrase) ‘above the stars where He must dwell’. Those who would query the ‘depth’ of Heifetz’s reading miss this point entirely. To adapt Oscar Wilde, it is they who are in the gutter, Heifetz who is looking at the stars.
As for Toscanini’s contribution – another cue for rancorous comment in the past – it, too, is masterly. Now that we can actually hear the performance, the orchestral tuttis (‘wooden grunts’ says Marsh) seem beautifully balanced both within themselves and
In the case of the Brahms, it is more reasonable to argue that there are other ways of playing the concerto: Kreisler’s way, for instance, or that of Kreisler’s colleague, Efrem Zimbalist, whose live 1946 recording of the Brahms, also with Koussevitzky and the Boston SO, makes an interesting comparison with this 1939 Heifetz recording. Heifetz’s is not a romantic reading. It is lean, athletic, classical, aristocratic, finely drawn, an approach which wears exceptionally well on record – witness his widely collected 1955 remake with Reiner and the Chicago SO.
The Brahms enjoys another impeccable transfer by Mark Obert-Thorn. Musically and technically, this is a real thoroughbred of a release, unignorable at any price, let alone the one Naxos so modestly asks.'