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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 [37.49]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 [24.01]
Jascha Heifetz (violin)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
Rec. Boston, November 27-28, 1955 (Beethoven); February 23, 25, 1959 (Mendelssohn)
RCA-BMG LIVING STEREO SACD 82876613912 [62.05]

Because Munch was largely associated with French repertoire we tend to forget that he also excelled in German music.

In both the Beethoven and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos Heifetz’s razor-sharp, silvery tone often grates on the ears and nerves, giving an unpleasant sensation of shrillness. It is scrappy, resinous and sour. It is this strange mixture of silvery sweetness and acidic astringency that gives Heifetz his unique ‘signature’ in the recording studio. Apparently in live performances Heifetz’s tone came across less sour and more sweet and pure. While this sweetness reaches out supremely well in his great recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, it does not work in the Beethoven and Mendelssohn concertos.

Similar to his powerfully direct conducting of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Richter and the Boston Symphony Orchestra - also on RCA), Munch conducts with great verve and thrust. His direction of the concerto has an urgency and toughness reminiscent of Toscanini.

Munch pushed the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at a relentless pace forcing Heifetz to play at full throttle with the rushed passages sounding rather rough and ready. Yet there was something refreshingly alive and spontaneous about this wild playing which eschewed the sterility of refinement. The slow movement is very disappointing with Heifetz’s scrawny tone taking on a measure of schmaltz: here there was no variation in mood or expression. Again Munch had inspired the BSO to play with great expressive warmth. Heifetz was at his best in the last movement where his rugged gypsy style paid dividends. Here he plays with great elasticity and agility producing a darting lilting grace but again however his tone still sounds rather scrawny and mean.

In the first and last movements of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor Op. 64 Heifetz comes across as even more shrill and rugged than in the Beethoven. His tone is sour and his playing unrefined as if it were just a quick run-through. It could be the close miking that gives Heifetz’s tone its bite and acidity. His best playing is in the slow central movement which is sensitive and lyrical even if it seems to lack the essential emotion. What makes this a worthy performance is the magnificent conducting of Charles Munch and the superlative playing of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and for me this is the selling point of this Super Audio CD. However, for Heifetz converts these interpretations remain paradigms. The superb recording captures the full-bodied warmth of the Boston Symphony Orchestra but unfortunately Heifetz’s tone comes across as too closely miked sounding at times congested and brittle.

Alex Russell



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