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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No.9 in A major Op.47 Kreutzer (1803) [31.01]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor Op.108 (1886-88) [19.40]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A major (1886) [25.08]
Jascha Heifetz (violin) with
Benno Moiseiwitsch (piano) – Beethoven, recorded 1951
William Kapell (piano) – Brahms, recorded 1950
Artur Rubinstein (piano) – Franck, recorded 1937
NAXOS 8.110990 [75.49]

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  Cannily selected, this trio of sonata recordings presents Heifetz with the unusual spectacle of non-chauffeur colleagues at the piano. Whatever his sovereign command, Heifetz’s taste in accompanists remained strongly rooted in the nineteenth century. Accordingly it’s a particular tensile pleasure to hear the patrician Rubinstein and Moiseiwitsch and the much younger Kapell in three sonatas at the centre of the literature.

The earliest is the Franck, made in London with Rubinstein at EMI’s Abbey Road studios. This is the only sonata they made together – oddly, perhaps, given their commanding presence as two thirds of the Million Dollar Trio – but it holds up well. It opens quite briskly but possesses an intimacy and tact in the Allegretto ben moderato that appeals. Heifetz reserves his full weight of expressive gesture for the Adagio where tempo flexibility and tonal malleability are all optimum. He ranges from high wire precision and elfin thread to those well loved lower string smears. There’s some gorgeous playing from the duo, not least from Rubinstein, in the Recitativo-Fantasia and though by the side of some other pairings of the time they can sound hasty they don’t sound unduly mechanistic or unfeeling. This is a work that Rubinstein played with his Polish colleague Kochanski and, quite possibly, with Ysaye as well. I’ve never been able quite to document either their joint concert recital programmes or their off-duty music making during the First War in London – but I’m sure they must have played this work together. As a performance I’d rank this one high, but not as high as the classic Francescatti-Casadesus or the Dubois-Maas of 1931.

The Brahms saw Heifetz coupled with William Kapell, three years before the pianist’s untimely death. The latter plays splendidly well but is not flattered by the usual Heifetz recording balance which saw pianists relegated to the back of the acoustic stage. Even so we can still appreciate his performance and concur with Heifetz who had wanted to pursue the collaboration with more recordings. We hear myriad inflexions from Heifetz, who micro-manages every aspect of the lyric line with stupendous, scintillating violinistic assurance. The changes of colour, the quicksilver responses, the tension he imparts are all magnificent and not overbearing, though I can imagine less sanguine views of this battery of devices brought to bear. He really reserves the greatest weight of vibrato for the restatement of the first movement’s initial melody, which then takes on a remarkably poignant depth. It’s only in the Adagio that the unceasing tints and shadings take on a somewhat wearying aspect. The attention to dynamics, detail and shading in the scherzo is remarkable. One can overlook some self-conscious phrasing in the finale – when playing like this is around one can sit back and luxuriate. Still, one wouldn’t place this recording above the earlier Szigeti-Petri, no matter how distinguished it is.

With the Kreutzer we hit an interesting situation. An earlier 1949 traversal by Heifetz and Moiseiwitsch was never issued but the pianist’s test pressings have now been released by APR and reviewed by me on this site; The comments I made there refer broadly, though not always in detail, to this commercially released 1951 recording. There are caveats. For all that the test pressings suffered some damage (skilfully repaired by Bryan Crimp at APR) it’s undeniably the case that the balance between instruments is far more just in the 1949 attempt, one of the reasons that Heifetz vetoed that project. Back in 1949 the two were slightly tighter in the first movement and were a touch more expansive in the second though there was unanimity about the finale, which they play with great dash on both occasions. Again, one wouldn’t necessarily want to draw parallels with the Huberman-Friedman but that was a recording of transfixing immediacy - but do try to get the APR, the contrasts and subtle differences are fascinating.

Mark Obert-Thorn has done the honours here and very well too. The Beethoven and Brahms would not have been particularly problematic but the Franck has been nicely equalized and has plenty of treble air. No Heifetz admirer should be without this.

Jonathan Woolf

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