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Heifetz in Performance
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Rondo from Serenade in D major Haffner K250 transcribed Kreisler [5.00]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
March from The Love for Three Oranges transcribed Heifetz [1.26]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Fille avec cheveux de lin – Preludes Book I No.8 transcribed Hartmann [2.24]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Daisies Op.38 No.3 [1.50]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
It Ain’t Necessarily So – from Porgy and Bess arranged Heifetz [2.45]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita No.2 in D minor BWV 1004 – Chaconne [12.45]
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Scottish Fantasy Op.46* [25.34]
Grigoras DINICU (1889-1949)
Hora Staccato arranged Heifetz + [2.06]
Jascha Heifetz (violin) with
Brooks Smith (piano) except + Emmanuel Bay (piano)
Osian Ellis (harp) New Symphony Orchestra of London/Malcolm Sargent *
Documentary copyright 1971, CD recordings 1970 except Bruch, 1961, and Dinicu, 1950
A DVD video documentary about the legendary performer. Bonus audio CD featuring complete performances of music heard in the DVD documentary from the artist's RCA Red Seal Legacy. Narration in English and optional Japanese subtitles. Link to and more extra features
RCA RED SEAL 82876 638869 [DVD: 63.00 CD: 53.53]

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I like the attractive livery of this DVD and CD series from BMG’s RCA Red Seal stable but the production details are skimpy. There’s none of the code-compatible information one finds on other DVDs. There’s a single sheet insert with the discographic details and some information on the DVD documentary itself – but not enough – and if you’re not alert (and you’d need to be alert) you may well miss that this is a TV documentary made in 1970 and aired on NBC in 1971. Here are the fuller details you won’t get from this release. The pretext was Heifetz’s 70th birthday and the organiser was Francis Robinson, assistant manager of the Met. It was he who wrote and narrated the hour long documentary which was produced by Lester Shurr and Paul Louis; John Pfeiffer was audio director. I note that Kirk Browning, the American music director, is listed on the box as sole director, that Shurr is consultant and Louis’s name is not mentioned so maybe responsibilities were reassigned. Or maybe not. It was Heifetz’s choice to record the musical segments in Paris. The concerts seem to have been fraught, the recording of the Scottish Fantasy especially. With lordly indifference Heifetz dispensed with the services of a conductor. Before he began playing he then ordered the two upper circles to be cleared. Satisfied and after a long, restive delay in front of an audience of seven hundred he started. He then stopped, scowled and debated some points of interpretation with the orchestra. The finished product on this DVD is apparently the second performance, the one where things went right, not the debacle of the first.

The rest of the programme, lightly and epigrammatically narrated, includes some shots of Heifetz and his pupil, Pierre Amoyal, going through the last bars of the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, then playing table tennis, a sport at which the older man was ferociously competitive. These narrative shots have the air of almost vacant serendipity; they follow no narrative drive. Instead we follow Heifetz in Hawaiian shirt as he walks, alone, by the ocean’s edge near his Californian house (complete with electric-engined car in the garage – whatever happened to those?) “I like every sound that is natural” says Heifetz of the onrushing foam billowing around his ankles, “and when I sit here it gives me the chance to think.” Intercut with these cinéma vérité shots are the Parisian studio concerts, the Bruch in the Théâtre des Champs Elysée and the rest in a small hall. We also see him warm up and go through the Bach Chaconne in a studio.

All this is in colour of course. We are so used to seeing him in black and white – and he was in semi retirement and spending much time teaching at the time – that it still comes as a surprise to see the noble, imperturbable features in bold relief; rather like seeing colour cine film of ones youth after a lifetime of black and white photos. What else does one notice? The insouciant grin at the audience after the Mozart Rondo, the stiff formality with chauffeur-accompanist, loyal Brooks Smith; some occasionally ponderous tracking shots, a rough cut edit or two, a rather formless sense of occasion. Still, this was an occasion after all and Heifetz was nearing retirement. The legion of admirers of the great man will be happy to know that this documentary (though it barely qualifies as such) is available but they should also know it’s thirty years old, was made for American television, and is more a sketchbook and piece of reportage-cum-homily than a piece of research.

The CD reprises the concert footage with the exception that the RCA Malcolm Sargent Scottish Fantasy (Walthamstow, 1961) is used and that there’s a bonus of a 1950 Dinicu Hora Staccato in Heifetz’s famous arrangement. Note also that when BMG says the Debussy was arranged by Arthur Friedman they mean Arthur Hartmann, long-haired American fiddle player. And the playing? Past its best, obviously, but still lordly. Rather too close to the mike we get quite an abrasive tone, rather too shrill. His Mozart is flashy, as his Mozart was wont to be. His Debussy misses entirely Thibaud’s Gallic sensuality, a compound of luxurious sexuality and languorous intimate longing – and regret. The Rachmaninov is admirable, if somewhat steely, and the Gershwin is another of his famous transcriptions, recorded more winningly earlier on in his career, but wonderful to see the sheer mechanics of the thing. The Bach was recorded the following day and the set-up in the ORTF studio was very slightly mellower. There are occasional intonational slippages and there’s something inimical to the grandeur and cumulative power of it in his playing. He rushes too much toward the end and I’m afraid it left me feeling quite empty. The Bruch comes from a decade earlier. I prefer the 1951 recording, once again with Sargent, but really no one could play this piece as he could. Only Perlman in our time has approached him, violinistically speaking, though others - I think of Accardo with Masur - have probing values of their own. So this is a fine recording, with Osian Ellis the harpist, and Sargent doing a reasonable job on the rostrum.

Together there’s just under two hours, audio and video, of Heifetz in this package. Should you play or should you pass? It depends how badly you want to see Heifetz in action, how carefully you want to watch left and right hand alignment, the height at which he held the fiddle, the flatness and length of the bowing, the stance, the limited though expressive movement, the lateral motion of fingers on the fingerboard, thumb placement, all that. I can put up with a lot to watch the Master in action. So, if you’ve read this far, can you.

Jonathan Woolf



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