TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35; CONUS: Violin Concerto in E Minor; SARASATE: Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20, No. 1; KORNGOLD: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 – Jascha Heifetz, violin/Philharmonia Orchestra/Walter Susskind (Tchaikovsky)/RCA Victor Symphony/Izler Solomon (Conus)/William Steinberg (Sarasate)/Los Angeles Philharmonic/Alfred Wallenstein (Korngold)
Naxos Historical 8.111359, 79:12 [Not Distr. in the U.S.] ****:
Just as Sony prepares to launch a major retrospective of violin superstar Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987), Naxos with producer Mark Obert-Thorn restores four collaborations from the vintage years 1950-1953, when the sheer gymnastic abilities of Heifetz’s playing became the standard of violin perfection. It was Isaac Stern who characterized the years 1920-1970 “the Age of Heifetz,” granting that few could equal Heifetz for a complete technical absorption of any music to which he dedicated himself, given that some critics – namely Virgil Thomson – found in the application of bow pressure Heifetz could be arbitrary and whimsical.
The 19-20 July 1950 inscription of the Tchaikovsky Concerto is the second of Heifetz’s three recordings. The first movement Heifetz takes very quickly, the razor-sharp accents and the sheer acceleration of the musical line fearsome at times. The cadenza proves particularly brilliant, even demonic, as if swallowed in one monstrous gulp by an ardent wizard of the bow. Yet the innate Tchaikovsky capacity for sweetness and melodic contour do not suffer distortion from the fierce, driving propulsion, which–typical of the period–prefers the edited version without the many repeats. The Philharmonia Orchestra, which boasted among its players Dennis Brain on French horn, supplies tender plaints in the Canzonettta, and the finale blisters us with a Russian dance that barely touches the ground in its furious gestures. Yehudi Menuhin glibly referred to the Heifetz performance of the Tchaikovsky “his Beethoven Concerto,” in that the architecture and classical poise Heifetz bestowed on the Russian became an archetype so powerful Menuhin himself felt he could add little to that vision.
The 1898 Concerto in E Minor by Julius Conus (3 December 1952) appeared on long-playing record LM 7017, but I knew this one-movement work from LM 2069. In three movements, the piece seems quite derivative of the Mendelssohn Concerto in the same key, spliced to elements we know from Wieniawski and Tchaikovsky. Attentive to details in rhythm and virtuosic runs and slides, Heifetz bestows a noble sense of purpose on a work that seems inflated and drawn out beyond what its inspiration will support. The Adagio does project a natural sincerity of expression, bucolic, lyrical, unaffected but prolix. The Cadenza provides some double-stopping display and passing rapid shifts into foreign keys, the orchestra whispering into the mix with only a minute to flourish to a breathless conclusion.
I always found Heifetz too “aristocratic” and over-refined for the gypsy style of Sarasate, but there can be no denying that his Gypsy Airs with William Steinberg (16 June 1951) raises the hairs on one’s neck. The digital control Heifetz exerts in shifts of bow position, silken slides, and subito dynamics astonishes the ear. When the fast section finally explodes in pizzicati and spiccati, watch out! Lastly, the Korngold Violin Concerto in D (1945) takes its three movements as arrangements of film music Korngold had scored in the 1930s–Another Dawn, Anthony Adverse, Juarez, and The Prince and the Pauper–and sets Heifetz loose to play the part of Enrico Caruso in lyric form rather than an Errol Flynn athletically tearing through the mizzenmast of some Sea Hawk. We must lament that RCA did not ask the original conductor Vladimir Golschmann to lead the inscription, leaving the recording (10 January 1953) to the relatively bland personality of Alfred Wallenstein. “More corn than gold,” had quipped critic Irving Kolodin, but Heifetz’s spectacular inscription raises the piece to the level of high art.
— Gary Lemco