The video tape recorder was invented in 1956, and it
was over a decade before it became economically available for general
broadcast use. Although the slipcase notes say these performances were
"filmed" what is meant is that they are "kinescope recordings"
accomplished by setting up a film camera before a video monitor. While
there is a steady improvement in quality from the earliest—the Heifetz—to
the latest—the Rubinstein, none of these recordings are as clear as
tape video recordings would be. The soundtracks vary in quality and
were originally very hissy; processing has been used to remove hiss,
and in some cases a little of the music as well.
The Mendelssohn is a disaster. Heifetz looks bored
to death as usual, playing the violin as another man might paint the
wall of a house; but, after all, World’s Greatest Violinist is the only
job he’s ever had and he’s plugged away at since he was nine years old.
I’m sure that most of the time the orchestra and soloist were playing
at approximately the same tempo, but I don’t remember it that way. The
sound quality is atrocious—grating, raucous. In addition, due to several
consecutive video format conversions, the soloist occasionally has ten
fingers, and the conductor five hands. If you are familiar with any
of Heifetz’s fine studio recordings of this work you don’t want to compromise
the memory of that beautiful experience with this.
The Debussy is better played all around and who can
tell if the orchestra and soloist are playing from the same measure?
The girl in the fright wig pretending to brush her hair might have looked
really great on a six inch TV screen in 1949. The Dinicu is rousing
and everybody seems to be having fun. Heifetz actually manages a smirk
which, on the Heifetz scale, is equivalent to an ear-to-ear gosh-oh-gee
The best thing on the program is the Beethoven, as
fine an interpretation as I’ve ever heard, clear and classically proportioned
with no inappropriate overstatement. Rubinstein’s face shows concentration
and absorption; one cannot imagine that somebody else wrote this music,
or that it could be played any other way than this (curiously, the annotator
seems to think this is an eccentric performance). Dorati looks like
he’s pounding his fists on a table much of the time, but, whatever it
takes, the orchestra sounds great. Here one can relax and enjoy the
music. The audience certainly did; here one can aptly say the applause
I found the Chopin encore a disappointment. Rubinstein
is obviously tired after a long concert and the work is played effortfully
without much grace or sense of motion.
The Walton is well played, but the noise clamping filter
causes the sound simply to disappear during the pianissimos, and just
when you’re settling in the picture will take a flip. Everyone plays
well, especially the four percussionists. Piatigorsky’s face shows tremendous
emotion and concentration, and at the end he wipes away a tear before
rising to take his bow. While watching this picture, play a commercial
One can only applaud what will hopefully become commonplace—issuing
classical music DVDs without region codes, even though some of the early
players will not play them.
It is also hoped that the release of these older films
will teach something to the current crop of video directors. Throughout
these videos the presentation of the orchestra is a sensible mixture
of medium views, overall views, and close-ups—miraculously, generally
of the actual instrument playing at the time. In the Mendelssohn they
show a closeup of the score and, incredible as it may seem, it is actually
the music then being played. It seems that what we’ve been getting recently
is a nervous flitting, panning, an impressionistic sweeping through
something orchestral, not necessarily related to the music or what the
orchestra is actually doing. Or we have too much concentration on a
superstar conductor’s grimaces and choreography.