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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D Op.77 (1879)  [34.29]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D Op.35 (1880) [29.34]
Jascha Heifetz (violin)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
Recorded Chicago, 1955 and 1957
BMG-RCA RED SEAL SACD 82876 67896 2 [64.16]


Both these recordings are staples of course, and incarnations have been many and various over the years. RCA brought out the Brahms, for instance, in its uniform liveried re-release series last year (coupled with the Double Concerto with Piatigorsky and Wallenstein). Both performances have their adherents and detractors; Heifetz recorded the Tchaikovsky four times commercially – with Barbirolli pre-War, twice with Sargent, and this recording with Reiner. As for the Brahms the reference recording was his 1939 Boston/Koussevitzky.

There’s no getting away from the fact that Heifetz takes speeds that are consistently brisk in the Brahms. Even a professed admirer, great player (and finger gymnast of the first mark, so “he could if he’d wanted to”) such as Leonid Kogan in his own contemporaneous recordings took markedly slower speeds in every movement of both concertos. In passages where others apply a degree of metrical freedom Heifetz drives forward; there is a sense of absolute tempo directionality that is absorbing if not always warming. There is no sense of physical or digital strain and no technical impediment to Heifetz’s playing – the finger position changes and colouristic devices offer a panoply of exalted musicianship and his own cadenza offers equal challenges to colleagues – have any of them picked up the cadenza? This is driving and leonine playing all round, though in the slow movement we find plenty of expression from the soloist and once more unremitting colour changes. Some indeed will find too many – that the sense of relaxation is missing, and that the phrasing lacks a certain longer line. The finale is driving and adrenalin-fuelled, not perhaps the kind of finale you find from Busch or from Szigeti, two of the leading exponents of this work on disc, but energising in the extreme.

The Tchaikovsky offers some intensely vibrated tone, some Heifetz slides and some brilliant passagework. He too finds the “intimacy” that Joshua Bell sought in his latest recording of this work, unsuccessfully in my view, but of a wholly different kind. The drive here is dynamic, rhythms are sharply etched, and there is abundant sentiment and coruscating drama. A bit too much however toward the end of the first movement where Heifetz adds some of his own amendments to the solo part (I think it’s pure Heifetz, it could be Auer-Heifetz). The slow movement is effortlessly lyric and contoured and the finale is buoyant, brilliant and blistering but full too of the subtlest inflexions and accelerandi. My own preference however remains the 1935 Barbirolli for its greater degree of warmth. 

I’ve not mentioned Reiner. He responds to Heifetz with sang froid and elevated professionalism, drawing out the lines of the Tchaikovsky slow movement for instance with great feeling and accommodating the fast tempi in the Brahms with nerveless control, even if he would, with another soloist, doubtless have relaxed and modified many of the tempi.

Listening at relatively high volume I heard some tape degradation in the opening of the Tchaikovsky and also a degree of surface noise which makes one wonder as to the state of the tapes. I listened on an ordinary set up, not one rigged for SACD. Self-recommending to Heifetz admirers but surely they have these performances already and won’t need an SACD incarnation?

Jonathan Woolf







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