Heifetz Collection, 1917-72

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Heifetz Collection, 1917-72

''One of the great things about Jascha Heifetz,'' said violinist Aaron Rosand in a recent interview, ''... is that, musically speaking, he always got straight to the point.'' Quite so. And with that pertinent remark very much in mind, let me first of all put my own critical cards on the table: Jascha Heifetz was, for me and for most violinists I've spoken to, the greatest twentieth-century exponent of his instrument. In saying that, I don't necessarily mean, 'the greatest violin-playing musician' (Busch, Szigeti and Huberman are prime contenders for that particular accolade) or even 'the most lustrous-sounding violinist' ( where Kreisler and Elman could perhaps take equal laurels). Heifetz represented a potent manifestation of musical integrity combined with tonal and intonational purity, technical discipline, virtuosity and intellectual honesty. And yes, he did invariably 'get straight to the point', whether in unaccompanied Bach, or Mozart and Beethoven sonatas, or Tchaikovsky's Concerto, or in the countless miniatures that he infused with a wealth of wit and feeling, making Kurt Weill dance, Gershwin sing and Cyril Scott lose himself in nostalgic reverie.
The specific components of Heifetz's style are instantly familiar: a lean, penetrating tone that seemed capable of countless gradations of nuance; a quick, intense vibrato; leaping slides, strategically placed; a cutting spiccato (and a genuine up-bow staccato); an ability to articulate at speed with perfect clarity and, most importantly, a propensity for 'speaking' inflexions, where every stroke or shift harboured its own unique dynamic level so that, taken as a whole, any one phrase was infinitely varied. This last attribute is what gives Heifetz's playing its unique emotional 'pull' and makes all 65 CDs in this mammoth set required listening for any violinist or devotee of great violin playing.
However, 'required listening' suggests instant purchase of the entire collection, which is fine for those whose budgets can stretch to the considerable asking price (£425-450), but hardly encouraging for the rest of us. In that case, I would suggest badgering your local library to invest in what is, after all, a major historical edifice; or, failing that, waiting until RCA issue the individual volumes separately—which they will definitely do in due course, excepting in certain (but not all) cases where material is on loan from other companies.
With one significant reservation (which has nothing whatever to do with either playing or recording quality, and which I shall now shelve until the end of this review), ''The Heifetz Collection'' is a triumph for the CD medium. Virtually all of Heifetz's commercial recordings are present and correct: 78s and tapes from RCA, EMI, American Decca (Brunswick in the UK) and Heifetz himself, including material that was previously available on CBS and Vox Cum Laudae. There are three previously unissued recordings (chamber works by Schubert, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, taped between 1963 and 1968), revealing snatches of interview, and a handful of previously issued live performances. Not included, however, are recordings that Heifetz made in Russia as a child (although some do survive in private collections); and there are none of the broadcast performances that have, at various times, circulated on 'unofficial' LP and CD labels. RCA and the Heifetz family are also demonstrably unenthusiastic about authorizing the release of various recordings (on both RCA and EMI) that have, for various reasons, remained unissued: these include a Sibelius Concerto with Stokowski, a Chausson Poeme under Monteux, Beethoven Romances and a Lalo Symphonie espagnole under Walter Susskind and, if long-standing rumours are well-founded, a Brahms G major Sonata with Emanuel Bay. Perhaps the hoped-for success of this monumental venture will help effect a change of heart. So now, without further ado, let me offer some sort of guidance through this glorious maze.
There are 46 volumes in all, each given over to a specific theme (or something resembling a theme—but more of that later). Vol. 1 is a dazzling box of tracks concocted from Heifetz's first Victor sessions and consisting largely of repertory that the young firebrand had employed during a working journey from Petrograd to New York. The period covered is from 1917-24, the repertoire, a veritable firework display with many first Heifetz recordings of pieces that would later re-emerge in electrical re-makes: Schubert's Ave Maria, Elgar's La Capricieuse, Drigo's Valse bluette, Achron's Hebrew Melody and so on. Then there are the miniatures that Heifetz never subsequently re-recorded, at least not commercially: Paganini's Moto perpetuo, Chopin's first E flat Nocturne, Kreisler's Sicilienne et Rigaudon, Schumann's Widmung, Dvorak's Slavonic Dances Nos. 2 and 16, Granados's Andaluza and much more, all played with a suaveness, intonational accuracy and prototypical employment of slides that, although generally prophetic of later (and perhaps greater) achievements, is more noticeably 'old-fashioned' than the Heifetz of the 1930s and beyond.
Vol. 2 (1925-34) promotes Heifetz's tone from the taut, nasal thread of the acoustical recordings to a sweeter, more open sound, delicate in texture and heard in repertory that was by now far more substantial, including various Bach movements (some originally for violin, others not), subtler re-recordings of selected titles in Vol. 1, and the first complete, full-scale works: Strauss's Sonata in E flat, Vivaldi's Sonata Rv31 and concertos by Mozart (the Turkish) and Glazunov (both with the London Philharmonic under Sir John Barbirolli). Some commentators have suggested that Heifetz's earliest concerto recordings are his best, and that the sweetness, lightness of touch and relative restraint exhibited therein reveal more 'taste' than the forceful, tough-grained and richly variegated re-creations of the 1940s, 1950s and even the 1960s. It's a view I respect but don't agree with.
Vol. 3 (1934-7) provides further potential points of comparison, including Bach's Third Solo Sonata (dazzlingly secure in every small detail though less muscular than the 1952 tape version), Grieg's G major Sonata, Wieniawski's Second and Vieuxtemps's Fourth Concertos, the latter two, again, with Barbirolli. The Vieuxtemps (a Heifetz 'one-off') is a slight piece magnificently manoeuvred, while such works as Cyril Scott's bitter-sweet Tallahassee and Szymanowski's ''Roxana's Song'' (King Roger) bear witness to a subtly intensified range of colour and inflexion.
Vol. 4 (1935-39) features two notable recordings under Koussevitzky: the Brahms and Prokofiev Second Concertos, both more perceptively conducted than their stereo successors (under Reiner and Munch, respectively) although, taken bar-by-bar, Heifetz's interpretations would later mature both in terms of colour and expressive nuance. Heifetz's first electrical recordings of Saint-Saens's Havanaise, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen display a poise that was later equalled though not surpassed, and if watery sonics partially compromise Brahms's A minor and Faure's A major Sonatas, few would deny Heifetz's songful handling of their respective solo lines. Some, however, will carp at hasty tempos, especially in the Faure.
Vol. 5 (1939-46) has Toscanini marshal a magnificent account of the Beethoven Concerto, Goossens conduct the first (more busily scored) version of Walton's B minor Concerto and Ormandy mould straightforward support for Heifetz and his cellist-equivalent Emanuel Feuermann in Brahms's Double Concerto. All three readings find Heifetz hitting target without bending the musical line, although his later version of the Double Concerto (with Gregor Piatigorsky, under Alfred Wallenstein) is perhaps a shade more giving. Another musical highlight of this particular volume is an atmospheric though urgently argued account of Chausson's Concert, with Jesus Maria Sanroma and the Musical Arts Quartet.
Vol. 6 (1947) contains some of Heifetz's finest 'encore' recordings (Debussy, Korngold, Medtner, Schubert et al), all committed to disc at a time when imagination and technique were in perfect accord, and supplemented by an account of the Bach Double Concerto where Heifetz double-tracks with himself—to superb effect in the Largo ma non tanto, but with variable results elsewhere. There are also the first of two exquisite recordings of Vieuxtemps's (cut) Fifth Violin Concerto.
Vol. 7 (1949-51) has an immensely dextrous but occasionally superficial Elgar Concerto, full of wonderful things (the finale's second subject being its tenderest moment) and solidly conducted by Sargent. The Tchaikovsky Concerto under Susskind is the most intimate of three options, the Saint-Saens First Sonata (with Bay), an irresistible blend of glitter and repose, and the Kreutzer Sonata (with Moiseiwitsch), athletic but cool. The last but one of the 'dated' volumes (8) covers the years 1950-55 and includes passionate declamations of Bloch's two quasi-Bartokian Violin Sonatas in the zany context of ripely romantic Handel, a volatile Brahms D minor Sonata with William Kapell, a Ravel Tzigane that spits and flashes like a winter bonfire, a supple Bruch First Concerto (the first of two under Sargent), sweet-toned Beethoven (Romances) and Schubert (D408), and a power-house encore in Wieniawski's D major Polonaise.
Vols. 9 and 10 constitute the ''Chamber Music Collection'', with incomparably eloquent wartime recordings of Mozart's E flat Divertimento, K563 (with Primrose and Feuermann) and Duo in B flat, K424 (with Primrose), the Sonatas K378 and 454, a second (superior) shot at Grieg's G major Sonata, a dazzling Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia (with Primrose) and Sinding's Suite in A minor for violin and orchestra, this last being quintessential Heifetz in terms of tonal intensity and lightning delivery. That's all in Vol. 9, whereas Vol. 10 includes Heifetz's first recordings of Beethoven's Sonatas Opp. 12 No. 3 and 30. No. 3, beautifully tailored accounts of three Beethoven string trios (Opp. 3 and 9 Nos. 1 and 3), Mozart's Turkish Concerto (the second, an perhaps the least remarkable, of two—under Sargent) and Sonata in C, K296.
With Vols. 11-17 we enter extremely well-charted territory, all of it already available on CD: concertos by Bach (the Double, this time with Heifetz's pupil Erick Friedman), Beethoven, Brahms (both solo and Double), Bruch (First and Scottish Fantasy), Glazunov, Mendelssohn, Mozart (Sinfonia concertante), Prokofiev (No. 2), Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Vieuxtemps (No. 5), then the Beethoven violin sonatas (Vol. 16) and the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas (Vol. 17). No single bar is ever taken for granted or thoughtlessly glossed over and if certain other interpreters (Szigeti in the Brahms, Huberman in the Beethoven, Oistrakh in the Glazunov) occasionally lay claim to a more comprehensive level of perception, none approaches Heifetz's technical mastery. Vol. 18 culls three CDs' worth of material from EMI's archives—Bach's Second Partita, the Mendelssohn, Sibelius and Mozart Fourth Concertos under Beecham, the Tchaikovsky under Barbirolli and the Franck Sonata with Rubinstein. These are widely considered as classics, and rightly so—although this writer marginally prefers Heifetz's later recordings of all the concertos, and of the Mendelssohn in particular.
Vol. 19, ''51 Miniatures—1944-6'' includes a large proportion of items that were previously released in the UK on the Brunswick label: ''Mack the Knife'' (with its dazzling left-hand pizzicatos), Melodies by Gluck and Tchaikovsky, Angels Guard Thee and Where My Caravan Has Rested Bing Crosby, and White Christmas without him—delicious indulgences all of them, garnished with impeccable style and a tone that speaks volumes. Vols. 20-22 extend the sweetmeat idea to larger works—Bruch's pensive Second Concerto, the Conus E minor (which, in the slow movement at least, serves as a potent tear-duct activator), Wieniawski's Second Concerto, the legendary Korngold Concerto recording, the Rozsa Concerto and Tema con variazioni (suger-iced Kodaly), Waxman's hyperactive Carmen Fantasy, Chausson's Poeme, Lalo's Symphonie espagnole and the superb Sarasate and Saint-Saens re-makes. Vol. 23 couples the second (revised) Walton Concerto recording with Louis Gruenberg's all-American hoe-down-cum-sob-story epic under Monteux (his Violin Concerto, and a palpable show-case for Heifetz's particular skills), Vol. 24 couples serenely assured accounts of the Bach A minor and E major Concertos with Mozart's Sonata, K454, Paganini's Caprice No. 20 and a remarkably outspoken account of Vitali's Chaconne (revised Respighi).
From now onwards, we transfer mostly to the realms of chamber music—with Heifetz, Primrose and Piatigorsky as the lynchpins. Vol. 25, for example, marries Beethoven's entertaining String Trio Op. 8 with a positively operatic account of Spohr's Eighth Concerto and bustling Double Quartet (a sort of poor man's Mendelssohn Octet—a work which would surely have provided a more appropriate coupling). A high-powered but eloquent Mozart G minor Quintet shares Vol. 26 with the Sonata K378 and Heifetz's last—and, in my view, his most compelling—account of the Fifth (Turkish) Violin Concerto. A more easy-going programme of Arensky and Turina Piano Trios (Vol. 27) has Kodaly's folksy Duo for Violin and Cello as a bonus. Characterization here has a delightfully off-the-cuff spontaneity, whereas Beethoven's Piano Trio No. 2 (with Leonard Pennario—a first UK release), although elegantly phrased, is fairly intense (the finale really does make sparks fly). It shares Vol. 28 with a pretty relentless account of Brahms's Quintet, Op. 111 (another UK 'first'), plus Boccherini and a delightful rendition of Mozart's Haffner Rondo.
Vol. 29 couples famous wartime recordings of the Beethoven Archduke and Schubert B flat Trios with Feuermann and Rubinstein, beautifully drawn but rather formal. Compare the fun-packed account of Beethoven's First Piano Trio (with Lateiner at the piano), where Heifetz's refreshing indifference to perfection goes as far as to allow a botched note in the final movement. Vol. 30 provides the context, with Handel-Halvorsen (violin and cello, this time, rather than violin and viola) and keenly attenuated accounts of Vivaldi's Concerto Rv547 and Mozart's Fourth Concerto (under Sargent). Vol. 31 couples Arthur Benjamin's pleasantly meandering Romantic Fantasy for violin and orchestra (not one of this composer's best works) with an occasionally lumbering Stravinsky Suite italienne (arr. Heifetz and Piatigorsky, and not one of Heifetz's best recordings), and with Castelnuovo-Tedesco's overworked The Lark and various shorter pieces thrown in for good measure, including a fabulous Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 7 (with orchestra) and a winning performance of Wieniawski's wistful Caprice-valse.
Vol. 32 finds us fully back on target with Brahms's B major Trio (surely the best of Heifetz's chamber recordings with Rubinstein and Feuermann), Dohnanyi's hugely engaging Serenade in C and the second (and surely the best) of Heifetz's Strauss Sonata recordings. Vol. 33 pairs a mightily dramatic Franck Piano Quintet with a more relaxed Dvorak Dumky Trio (adding a most poetic account of the ''Nocturne'' from Sibelius's Belshazzar's Feast); Vol. 34 starts with Heifetz's last recording of Bach's ''Chaconne''—a noble affair, if marginally less secure than its two predecessors— then proceeds with a superb Mendelssohn C minor Trio and a fallible performance of Mozart's C major String Quintet (Primrose is rather off-colour) that's no match for the performance of the G minor in Vol. 26.
Vol. 35 is a real hodgepodge of Robert Russell Bennett, Gershwin, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Shulman, Stravinsky, Toch (Divertimento, Op. 37, No. 2) and—wait for it—Mendelssohn's Octet! Great playing, yes—but planning? Relative logic returns for famous (and forceful) performances of the Mendelssohn First and Tchaikovsky Piano Trios with Rubinstein and Piatigorsky (Vol. 36), then turns a blind eye when Schubert's C major Quintet (more forceful still), Second String Trio and Ave Maria share Vol. 37 with a trio of Bach Sinfonias. With Vol. 38 we reach two of three previously unissued recordings (the only ones in the set): Brahms's and Schubert's Second Piano Trios, the former with Leonard Pennario, the latter with Jacob Lateiner. The Schubert is fairly swift and dry, but the Brahms is vividly animated—rather like the Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence in Vol. 39, where the first movement is something of an aural scrum, with much aggression and conspicuous discolouration. The middle movements, however, are quite wonderful and the assertive Dvorak F minor Trio coupling is (again, with minor imperfections) full of eloquent musical gestures. Vol. 40 is devoted to more 'encore' pieces (including Heifetz's second Gershwin sequence), Vol. 41 to unforgettable accounts of Brahms's Second Sextet, some Hungarian Dances and Dvorak's Piano Quintet (the latter a thrilling, top-gear affair), and Vol. 42 to three further chamber performances, all of them de rigueur for serious Heifetzians, Beethoven's String Trio Op. 9, No. 2, Brahms's Piano Quartet in C minor and Schubert's C major Fantasie, this last a dry, rasping, occasionally off-hand but ultimately moving testament to Heifetz's final performing phase.
Vol. 43 features a quartet of rewarding but unusual twentieth-century pieces: Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Second Concerto (The Prophets), Howard Ferguson's winsome First Sonata, Jean Francaix's skittish Trio in C and a tuneful and charming Sonata by Karen Khachaturian (the one that David Oistrakh recorded for Columbia years ago). Heifetz's superb re-make of the Saint-Saens First Sonata (with Brooks Smith) shares Vol. 45, a sequence of French miniatures and his equally revealing re-recording of Faure's First Sonata (note how, in the finale, he takes the opening phrase as in a single breath). Finally, Vol. 46, the last concert, recorded on October 23rd, 1972 and including poignant final accounts of the Franck and Strauss sonatas, a bold Ravel Tzigane, some unaccompanied Bach, various 'encores' and two works that were new to Heifetz's discography: Kreisler's La chasse and Bloch's Nigun. At 70, one might have expected the spirit to be willing and the body weak; but, as it happened, the body (or at least the arms and fingers) remained remarkably agile, so that the spirit emerged as powerfully as ever, albeit with an occasional sigh. Heifetz was still his incomparable self, and we can be eternally thankful that he 'called it a day' before stooping to anything less.
This last concert is presented very much as it was originally on two CBS LPs. The sound, too, is every bit as good as it was, as indeed are the majority of taped recordings included (i.e. those that RCA's Jack Pfeiffer and his colleagues engineered themselves). The London stereo recordings are probably the best in terms of orchestral sound and overall balancing, and although the American sessions are generally rather close and dry, their very intimacy brings the players straight into your room—and with playing of such quality, that is a privilege not to be taken lightly. As to the 78s, some sound better than others. The EMI recordings are taken from RCA's own masters and are generally noisier than those transferred at Abbey Road by Andrew Walter and his team—which sometimes means that they also sound rather more natural. The American Deccas certainly emerge as more palatable than they did on a ferociously hard-edged MCA transfer from the early days of CD (which was never issued in the UK), but 'selected' tracks have been swathed in added ambience, much as they were on some later LP editions. The remaining RCA transfers are rather variable, with, for example, the Brahms B major Trio sounding far less clear than it does on a recent Biddulph transfer. Taken overall, however, most shellac-based items have been satisfactorily transferred, while some recordings of the period (and the shorter pieces in particular) still sound quite impressive.
Now, to leave the best—and the worst—until last. The 'best' is a heartfelt recommendation for the music, for its leading performer and for RCA's courageous decision to issue all this treasurable material in one fell swoop: that certainly demands a very loud round of applause. The 'worst', however, concerns the couplings—many of which are, quite frankly, terribly ill-conceived. True, the probable reason for trailing Bach's Double with Castlenuovo-Tedesco's Tango was the close proximity of the sessions, but spreading Beethoven's complete string trios over three sets (Vols. 10, 25 and 42), not pairing the two Mozart quintets, or Mendelssohn Trios, or Dvorak chamber works, or Bruch concertos, Mozart concertos, etc—all this makes for unnecessary confusion on the part of the collector. Even the one logical coupling that's already available—the Elgar and Walton concertos—has been replaced by a disc where the Elgar is followed by Saint-Saens's First Violin Sonata! But rather than proceed too far down this rather negative route, let me simply quote just one CD sequence. It's the first disc of Vol. 8, which runs as follows: Brahms Sonata No. 3, Beethoven Romance No. 2, Bruch Concerto No. 1, Wieniawski Polonaise (violin and piano), Beethoven Romance No. 1 and Handel Sonata No. 13. This particular concoction has absolutely no musical, discographical or chronological logic. The reasons for the couplings are doubtless to do with existing compilations and the old LP version of the ''Heifetz Collection'' (which has been reproduced more or less intact); but with 65 CDs on hand to explore, we might surely have expected something rather more organized. In other respects, however, the ''Heifetz Collection'' is an intelligently annotated and handsomely presented discographical triumph. '

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