Years ago while listening to some 78s of Brahms’s First Sonata that Toscha Seidel made for American Columbia in 1931‚ I’d often think to myself how shameful it was that RCA never commissioned Heifetz to record the same work. I would ponder how fascinating it might have been to compare these two star pupils of the great Leopold Auer in the same exalted masterpiece. Rumour subsequently broke about the existence of a Heifetz Brahms First‚ only to be quashed at the time by RCA. And now here it is in all its considerable glory‚ significantly less expansive than Seidel (at least in the first two movements)‚ a lot less flexible in terms of its phrasing‚ though no less affecting. Perhaps the opening will prove just a little ‘nononsense’ for some tastes but while the manner is sometimes abrupt‚ the range of expression later on is as remarkable as ever. All the Heifetzian hallmarks are there: a fast‚ finely modulated vibrato‚ subtle variations in bowing (especially shorter notes played at speed)‚ keen inflections and an occasional coarseness that is more characteristic of Heifetz’s postwar period.
Maybe that was one of the reasons it was withheld‚ though heaven knows there are enough issued Heifetz discs where minor falls from perfection are just as evident as they are here (in Brahms’s Second Sonata‚ for example). They’re of little or no significance‚ certainly in relation to the burning intensity of the playing‚ its poetry and considerable tonal allure. I retain my regard for Seidel and I much prefer his pianist Arthur Loesser who‚ in both the Brahms First and the Grieg Third (Pearl couples them with the Brahms Second)‚ shows a good deal more imagination than the straitlaced and excessively recessed Emanuel Bay. Comparing the two recordings in the closing minutes of the second movement – Seidel soft and otherworldly‚ Heifetz puretoned and intense – says a good deal about both partnerships.
Heifetz’s Grieg Third is even better; a brilliant toughgrained reading with plenty of vibrant tone (in the finale’s second subject) and the expected lightning reflexes. The slow movement is similar in conception to a cut version from a few years earlier that was first issued in the LP edition of RCA’s ‘Heifetz Collection’ (now on Volume 3 of the CD collection); again‚ comparisons with the lyrical Seidel reveal Heifetz to be the more focussed and alert player. Of course RCA already held a trump card in their KreislerRachmaninov recording of 1928‚ where the glow of Fritz Kreisler’s tone contrasted with the tempered drama of Rachmaninov’s piano playing. In that respect alone Heifetz’s version falls short of the ideal (Seidel’s Arthur Loesser is again preferable to Bay)‚ though not on account of his contribution. His sound was a world on its own‚ utterly magical: and there aren’t many examples of it that are more seductive than these‚ not from the 1930s anyway.
If ultimately it is possible to speculate reasons for the sonatas’ unissued status‚ I’m totally baffled by Heifetz’s (or RCA’s) previous reluctance to sanction the release of the acoustic recordings. The WieniawskiKreisler and RameauAchron are full of wit and brilliance‚ the TchaikovskyAuer quite fabulous in its tonal bloom (even through a recording horn). Zapateado is a very subtle and exciting variation on a dazzling acoustic recording that we already know. And if the electrically recorded piano duet Valencia suggests that Heifetz (heard in collaboration with Isidor Achron) was wise not to give up his day job‚ it’s amazing that given his punishing practice schedule he had the time to hone such a solid keyboard technique. But that’s willpower for you.
All in all then‚ a most valuable release: the violin fancier’s equivalent of a major new Callas discovery‚ with scarcely a flaw worth mentioning. The transfers by Jon M Samuels are superb.