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CD: Crotchet


Jascha Heifetz - Violin Virtuoso
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Violin Concerto in D, op.35 (1947) [21:41]
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)
Symphonie Espagnole, op.21 (1874) [17:25]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Preludes # 1-3 (arr. Heifetz) (1926) [1:32; 2:51; 1:21]
Porgy and Bess (1935): Summertime [1:48]; A woman is a sometime thing [1:52]; My man’s gone now [3:52]; It ain’t necessarily so [2:33]; Tempo di Blues [2:52]; Bess, you is my woman now [3:11]
Deep River (?) [2:26]
Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Moderato assai (arr. Frenkel) (from The Threepenny Opera) (1928) [2:26]
Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960)
Jamaican Rumba (arr. Primrose) (1938) [1:41]
Jascha Heifetz (violin)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Alfred Wallenstein (Korngold); RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/William Steinberg (Lalo); Emanuel Bay (piano) (Gershwin and Weill); Milton Kaye (piano) (trad. and Benjamin)
rec. Sound Stage 9, Republic Studios, Hollywood (Korngold, Lalo), World Broadcasting Decca Studios, New York City (Gershwin, trad., Weill, Benjamin); 16 October 1944 (Benjamin), 18 October 1944 (trad.), 28 November 1945 (Gershwin), 30 November 1945 (Weill), 12-13 June 1951 (Lalo), 10 January 1953 (Korngold)
REGIS RRC1296 [74:04]
Experience Classicsonline

In a disc billed on its cover as centring on an artist, rather than on any individual work, it is odd to find less booklet space given over to biography than to the discussion of one particular piece of music.  But writer Peter Avis evidently feels strongly that the Korngold violin concerto needs all the support it can get.  After all, in spite of a hugely successful premiere (“… triumphantly received … A success like the best times in Vienna … the most enthusiastic ovation in the history of the hall” according to the composer), as well as promotion by some world-class soloists, it has resolutely failed to establish a place in the general repertoire other than as something of a curiosity. The ingrained artistic elitism of post-war metropolitan critics – accused by Korngold of displaying “snobbish, atonal anger” - originally had a great deal to do with that. 
All three movements contain material taken from Korngold-scored movies and that was enough for many disdainful highbrow commentators to dismiss the work out of hand as a “Hollywood concerto” (the words of Olin Downes in the New York Times).  But those very same film scores, revalued since the 1970s’ upsurge in interest in the composer, are widely perceived nowadays as uniquely rich and sophisticated examples of their type.  As a result, few commentators any longer consider that Korngold compromised or debased such “serious” compositions as his symphony or his violin concerto by incorporating into them material that had been originally written for the screen.
Korngold himself claimed that, in this concerto, he was planting his own standard firmly on the side of “expression and feeling … long melodic themes … music conceived in the heart and not constructed on paper … [and] wohllautend (well-sounding)”.  He had, moreover, a particular type of soloist in mind: “In spite of its demand for virtuosity in the finale, the work with its many melodic and lyric episodes was contemplated rather for a Caruso of the violin than for a Paganini.  It is needless to say how delighted I am to have my concerto performed by Caruso and Paganini in one person: Jascha Heifetz.”  [All original quotations are taken from Brendan G. Carroll’s authoritative study The Last Prodigy: a biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Portland, Oregon, 1997) pp. 328-332].
As Heifetz appreciated to the full, Korngold’s concerto is a beguiling, deeply romantic and richly-themed work that repays in spades any soloist’s degree of emotional investment.  It is hard to see how his completely secure and utterly committed 1951 recorded performance could be bettered – which is perhaps another reason why very few have ever tried.
The 1951 performance of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole does not reach quite such exalted levels.  That, however, has nothing to do with Heifetz: he fulfils the composer’s demands for glittering pastiche and consummate virtuosity to the letter.  The culprits are, rather, the orchestra and conductor who offer unidiomatic and generally lifeless support.  One might be inclined to forgive them in a live performance when all ears would be on the soloist – but, for repeated listening, this becomes a rather dull and dreary experience.
While quite appropriately included on this disc, the assorted violin/piano pieces that complete it show Heifetz in a very different context.  As a good friend of Gershwin’s (there was actually a chance of them becoming related when the composer dated the violinist’s sister Pauline), Heifetz exhibits complete empathy with his musical idiom. The three preludes – concise yet compelling pieces - go particularly well.  Juxtaposed like this, they in fact make an attractive mini-suite for violin and piano.  Heifetz was himself responsible for transcribing the Porgy and Bess material and, once again, the affection for Gershwin’s melodies and style is quite evident.  Summertime is a particular success but the “spikier”, more astringent pieces come off superbly well too. 
The three closing pieces are also well chosen to justify the disc’s “violin virtuoso” title, with Arthur Benjamin’s Jamaican Rumba making a fitting final number.  Maybe Heifetz – the great poker face – still maintained his usual stern mien during the recording session, but I doubt whether you will do the same as you listen to the entrancing results.
Rob Maynard
Reviews of other Korngold Violin Concerto recordings


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