Heifetz & Piatigorsky - The Chamber Concerts Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
String Quintet No. 4 in G minor K.516 (1787) [30:32] CÚsar FRANCK (1822-1890)
Piano Quintet in F minor (1879) [30:59] Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36 (1865) [29:35] Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Octet in E flat major, Op.20 (1825) [27:56]
rec. August 1961, RCA Studios, Hollywood, USA. XR Stereo PRISTINE AUDIO PACM108 [61:23 + 57:42]
There is a nice symmetry to this double CD compilation: four masterworks by four composers expert in the chamber genre, each lasting approximately half an hour, making a two-hour programme, increasing in complexity from two quintets to a sextet and finally one of the two most famous octets in the classical repertoire (the other being Schubert’s).
The core of the ensembles here is the “dream team” of Heifetz and Piatigorsky, who play in all four pieces. They are variously accompanied by fellow artists of the highest calibre, the next most famous of whom is probably violist William Primrose, who also had an important solo career. Brief biographical details of the lesser-known performers are provided in the notes, lifted from the 1962 Gramophone review.
Apart from the known quantity of these recording, i.e. the intrinsic excellence of the artistry here, obviously the things to watch out for are the expected improvements Andrew Rose will have made in the sound. The first blessing is that they were studio-made in stereo, giving him a promising base from which to work and the results are superb: virtually no hiss, just some very slight background rustle – which is almost imperceptible except on headphones. Otherwise, we hear extraordinary richness and depth and good balance – despite some undue prominence for Heifetz’ violin, which is hardly surprising. I guarantee that no previous incarnation will have sounded this good.
The playing, of course, is superlative – such passion, technical expertise and unfailingly fine co-ordination and intonation. Heifetz’ drive and attack in the Mozart are compelling and his fellow musicians keep pace with him all the way. The vibrancy of his tone in the pyrotechnical passages is matched by their agility and sonority but the tenderness of their playing in the Adagio, too, is heart-breaking.
The Franck Piano Quintet is a massive, passionate, brooding piece in swirling minor mode that hardly ever relaxes in its intensity of expression from the first wailing, descending theme for the strings answered by the piano's desperate, withdrawn sadness. The first, long movement builds over fifteen minutes to an astounding dissonant climax, like nothing else you've heard in late 19C French music and when they play fifths or octaves in unison here, as happens frequently, it is as one.
The Lento trudges despondently, epitomising the pangs of despised love. This must be one of the most eloquent depictions of the heart's despair in Romantic music. Often the music seems to echo the obsessiveness we find in Beethoven's last quartets with its pounding, repetitive motifs and a terrible restlessness seeking resolution. The drive
and intensity of Heifetz and co. here are reflected in rather pacier timings than in other versions, where the resinous sweetness of Heifetz’ tone takes centra stage, but they certainly understand and channel the Romantic desperation of the piece into playing of remarkable beauty and concentration.
The concluding Allegro begins with an ominous, scurrying moto perpetuo on the first violin while the piano comments grimly in chords; again, the first time you hear it you realise that it is wholly sui generis in style. Heifetz’ dextrous virtuosity here is outstanding. Then comes a faux-gai, faintly Brahmsian, three-quarter dance begins like some ghastly valse triste, finally storming into a major key conclusion without sounding the least bit resigned or consolatory.
There are, evidently, several other recommendable versions of this music, from Naxos’ excellent 1996 bargain recording by the Quatuor Ludwig with pianist MichaŰl Levinas back to Clifford Curzon and members of the Vienna Philharmonic but given that this is just one of four great works on offer here, you might well feel that this is all you need.
The third work in this programme, Brahms’ second String Sextet, is a work I love – even if not as much as I adore his first one - and I am always perplexed when fellow music-lovers express any difficultly in engaging with it. Anyway, it is here given as persuasive an advocacy as one could hope and the finale in particular is joyous.
The climax of the recital is the astonishing octet written by a sixteen-year-old Mendelssohn. There is little one can say about this work which has not already been said, especially when it is played to perfection as here. This is the apogee, the essence of great music-making; Mendelssohn never again wrote anything to approach the melodiousness of its Andante and it rivals Schubert’s greatest chamber works for poignancy and tension. The filigree delicacy of the Scherzo is a thing of wonder and the presto finale blaze with energy, Heifetz playing out of his skin.
Jascha Heifetz – Israel Baker (violins)
Arnold Belnick – Joseph Stepanky (violins)
William Primrose – Virginia Majewski (violas)
Gregor Piatigorsky – Gabor Rejto (cellos)
Leonard Pennario (piano)
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