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Jascha Heifetz Fireworks
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)
Symphonie espagnole, op.21 (1874) [17:25]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Havanaise, op.83 (1887) [9:09]
Pablo DE SARASATE (1844-1908)
Zigeunerweisen, op.20 (1878) [8:14]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Poème, op.25 (1897) [13:25]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, op.28 (1863) [8:27]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Tzigane (1924) [8:15]
Jascha Heifetz (violin)
RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/William Steinberg (Lalo; Saint-Saëns; Sarasate)
RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Izler Solomon (Chausson)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Alfred Wallenstein (Ravel)
rec. Republic Studios Sound Stage 9, Hollywood ((Lalo, Saint-Saëns, Sarasate and Ravel) and United Artists Studios, Hollywood (Chausson); 12-13 June 1951 (Lalo), 16 June 1951 (Sarasate) 18 June 1951 (Saint-Saëns op.83), 19 June 1951 (Saint-Saëns op.28), 2 December 1952 (Chausson) and 8 December 1953 (Ravel)
ISTITUTO DISCOGRAFICO ITALIANO IDIS6546 [71:35]

 

Experience Classicsonline


It’s intriguing to imagine how the reputations of today’s leading musicians will fare after their deaths.  Some figures from the past remain in high esteem: conductors Otto Klemperer and Eugen Jochum, pianist Sviatoslav Richter or violinist David Oistrakh are, for instance, all still highly lauded performers. 

In other cases, reputations may even grow.  Take for example two famous conductors long associated with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Appreciation of Leopold Stokowski’s artistry seems to increase year by year as newly-unearthed, charismatic - if sometimes idiosyncratic - recordings come to light.  Similarly, Eugene Ormandy’s consistent high standards - which seemed almost to bore contemporary critics during his lifetime - are much better appreciated now that they can no longer be taken for granted.  And even one of the conductors featured on this Heifetz disc, William Steinberg, has recently found a champion in David Patmore, author of the admirable Naxos A-Z of Conductors, who has singled him out as ripe for rediscovery. 

There are, though, some musicians who suffer precipitate declines in public esteem after their deaths.  Herbert von Karajan offers an obvious example, even though some valiant rearguard actions have lately been fought on his behalf in the media.  Perceived for so long and by so many as the world’s leading conductor, there was, after his death, only one way his reputation could go.  And perhaps the same may have been true of the so-called “violinist of the century” Jascha Heifetz. 

In 1976 a certain Herbert R. Axelrod produced a substantial scrapbook-cum-biography of Heifetz.  Apart from his musical interests, Mr Axelrod’s main claim to fame was as a publisher of books on tropical fish.  Heifetz’s critics would certainly appreciate the suggestion that a man attracted to tropical fish – all colourful glitter on the outside but essentially unemotional, unresponsive and uncommunicative on the inside – might also have admired the violinist for, perhaps, those very same qualities. 

But that line of criticism – encouraged by Heifetz’s sternly aloof and patrician manner on stage – is not entirely fair.  There was, as RCA’s complete 46-volume Heifetz Collection on CD made abundantly obvious, far more to its subject than the caricature version.  Incidentally, while individual volumes are still available, the full boxed set of the Collection – complete with numbered commemorative medal (mine is #789) – seems to have disappeared from circulation, although I see that Amazon.com is currently offering just one “as new” priced at a mere $2,469.99!

In reality, as his peers all knew, Heifetz was not just a great technician but a masterly artist of great versatility, sensitivity and musicianship, especially so in the intimately collaborative area of chamber music. 

The disc under review – with its catchpenny title Jascha Heifetz Fireworks – focuses more, however, on showy virtuosity and will do, therefore, little to alter the common prejudice.  Its contents are, moreover, very well known.  In fact, five of the six pieces can be found – in exactly the same order of presentation – on volume 22 of the RCA Collection where, perhaps more accurately, they are termed “showpieces” rather than “fireworks”.  Meanwhile, the Ravel may be found on volume 8.  Side by side comparisons of the new disc with the older RCA accounts show, to my own ear at least, that no improvement has been made in the (generally very good) sound. 

Heifetz’s note-perfect performances need detain us little.  He provides – exactly as advertised – the expected coruscations and then some.  Lalo’s Symphonie espagnol (performed here in the four movement version more often heard at that time) evokes the pastiche Spain so beloved of such 19th century non-Iberian composers as Bizet, Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Chabrier and Moszkowski.  Heifetz is, however, let down by a tubby-sounding orchestra that appears never to have got closer to Spain than a package trip to Benidorm.  Just six years later the London Symphony Orchestra was to show a far more stylish way to do these things on its classic Decca LP España (now CD 443 580-2) – but then they had zarzuela specialist Ataulfo Argenta to lead them. 

Havanaise goes more successfully, if only because Saint-Saëns has, in his wisdom, given the orchestra a rather lower musical profile: they have little of any great musical interest to do and are clearly there to accompany the soloist.  But there is a real change with Zigeunerweisen.  Having listened to this Heifetz performance at least twice a week over a ten year period (the final allegro molto vivace section was the “signature tune” of my BBC radio programme) I know it pretty much inside out - yet it emerges here, as always, fresh as a daisy.  I have yet to hear another soloist, however eminent, carry the piece off with such verve and panache.  And for some inexplicable reason the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra sounds a far more alert and lively band on 16 June 1951 than they had been just a few days before (Symphonie espanole) or would be a few days later (Havanaise). 

Ever on the lookout for interesting repertoire, in 1941 Heifetz had recorded Chausson’s concerto for violin, piano and string quartet.  Ten years later, the same composer’s far better known Poème may not have been such an adventurous choice but this is certainly another fine performance, eschewing the silky dreaminess adopted by some violinists in favour of a more open and directly forthright approach.  This “poem” is less a Romantic sonnet by Keats than a stirring lay by Thomas Babington Macaulay – but its artistic credentials are, none the less, never in doubt.  Conductor Izler Solomon’s strong contribution evidently impressed Heifetz, for three years later they were to collaborate again - this time on the world premiere recoding of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 2.

Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso also goes well, but the real highlight of the disc comes with the Ravel.  Recorded with a different orchestra and conductor, Heifetz sounds revitalised by the musical challenges of Ravel’s far spikier 1920s take on “gypsy” music.  Although he made recordings of this work in its violin/piano form in both 1934 and 1972, this was his only recording of the full orchestral version.  The performance also benefits from better engineering, with a far brighter and clearer sound picture than on the earlier recordings.  It is both a genuine triumph and a real “firework” with which to end the disc.

Rob Maynard





 


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