Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata No. 1 in G Minor BWV1001 [17.21]
Sonata No. 2 in A Minor BWV1003 [20.54]
Sonata No. 3 in C Major BWV1005 [20.04]
Partita No. 1 in B Minor BWV1002 [24.43]
Partita No. 2 in D Minor BWV1004 [26.14]
Partita No. 3 in E Major BWV1006 [17.16]
Menuetts I and II from Partita 3 in E Major BWV1006 (1802) [2.29]*
Jascha Heifetz (violin)
rec. 1925*, 1952. ADD
PRISTINE AUDIO PCM 075 [58:19 + 68:13]

Having thoroughly enjoyed the Casals Bach recordings, also on Pristine, I had high expectations of this set. In many ways these discs are a notable triumph. However, this is a version I admire rather than love.

The technical virtuosity is considerable. You only have to listen to the ‘Allemande’ in Partita No. 1 to appreciate the clarity of attack, the tone quality and the terrific precision. At times, however, especially in the slower episodes, these performances lack expressive warmth. The quicker sections display a smoother style; it is as if in the fast movements Heifetz found it easier to mould the timbre of the violin into something liquid and gentle. For example the Presto in Sonata 1 has a sweet sound which is no less brilliant than what has come before but which is, in addition, vibrant and attractive. Even better is the Double in Partita 1. All too often however charm is missing. Casals on his 78s of the Suites for Cello may not rival the virtuosity of Heifetz and some critics feel his performances are sombre and rough but he is charismatic in a more forthright and convivial way than Heifetz achieves. The difference is that I love Casals’ playing but respect/admire Heifetz. You don’t have to scrape the ice off this record but you might ask ‘Couldn’t you put a little warmth or smile into it?’

In the slow movements, such as in the fugue in Sonata 2, Heifetz was not altogether suited to this music. His avoidance of any trace of Romantic style inhibited one of his great strengths – the sweetness that made him the equal of Menuhin and Perlman. It is intermittently found in examples such as the Grave in Sonata 2. Happily it is more obvious in the Partitas which for whatever reason - schooling, sentiment - combine to create better results.

The violence of some of the techniques, such as in the Sarabande of Partita 1, takes a little getting used to. The double-stopping in the Bourree may seem stylistically old-fashioned but it’s undeniably dramatic.

Others have found that they respond differently to Heifetz. I noticed an Amazon review which compares Heifetz favourably with the ‘cold’ school of instrumentalists like Sviatislav Richter. I hear this at times in the Andante in Sonata 2 or the Fugue in Sonata 3 but not so regularly as in his performances of Saint-Saëns and Romantic scores.

Sonata 1 – take the start of the Siciliana – could do with richer vibrato to add to the contrast which Heifetz achieves regarding dynamics. It is the contrasts between warm, dark tones and bright, sometimes sweet, notes as well as loud and quiet differences that help make performances of Bach’s violin works come alive. The balance is not quite right here. The violin is over-bright in the Fugue (Track 2) – advances in recording technology within the next decade would probably leave air around the instrument to let it bloom.

The Partita tracks are a step ahead of his Sonatas. The committed performances of Partitas 2 and 3 – I suggest you sample the Allemande from Partita 2 – are engaging and CD 2 is the stronger half of this album. The Gigue in Partita 3 is an improvement on the somewhat mechanical playing evident in the gigue of Partita 2. I find the attempt from 1925 a deal more flexible than the 1952 set; lyrical and mellow – helped by the nature of the sound which has space around it. Did Heifetz decline a little from his early prime? I wonder. Menuhin was similarly talented in his early ventures into Bach and also made records to treasure. The question of how they compare to later artists (Perlman, Kennedy, Bell) is perpetually up for debate.

I may over-generalise by saying that Heifetz was better suited to later Romantic music but that repertoire gains the most from this performer; nevertheless he is excellent regarding intonation and sheer bite.

I prefer performances by Perlman – all in good stereo. The movements with Perlman suffer no decline in virtuosity but are also amenable and full of emotion. The Fugue in sonata 1 is less mechanical in Perlman’s hands. Having said that there is really no mistaking the calibre of Heifetz’s playing which is never lacking in polish. The sound is quite good although not so kind to the violin’s overtones as contemporary records of the rich mahogany voice of a cello. There is a faint background hiss on occasion - it is after all nigh-on 60 years old - but nothing disturbing. Andrew Rose consistently improves on the re-masterings by large companies. Technology in noise reduction and equalization has improved considerably as these CDs show.

David Bennett

Heifetz’s achievement here appeals more to the head than the heart.