Jascha Heifetz's virtuosity is replayed on new set of CDs

January 08, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Jascha Heifetz was almost universally acknowledged as the world's supreme classical instrumentalist -- an honor no other performer on any instrument, in his lifetime or since, has enjoyed. His reputation, unlike those achieved today when musicians try to become "personalities," was based solely on musical considerations.

"I wish you would keep it short," the violinist once told an interviewer. "Just make it 'Born in Russia, first lesson at 3, debut at 7, debut in America in 1917.' That's all there is really, about two lines."

What Heifetz wanted to be remembered for is scarcely short, and it is contained in an RCA boxed set (priced at about $600 in most stores) of 65 CDs grouped in 46 volumes called "The Heifetz Collection." Herein are contained all the commercial recordings Heifetz made between 1917 and 1972 (when he made his final public appearance). Whether you want to hear one of his three recordings of Bach's "Chaconne" or hear him provide accompaniments for Bing Crosby, you can find it in "The Heifetz Collection."

From the beginning, Heifetz (1900-1987) had the kind of talent that didn't need any publicity -- it only needed to be heard. When he made his American debut at Carnegie Hall, almost every prominent musician on the East Coast was there to hear him. Two of the most famous, pianist Leopold Godowsky and violinist Mischa Elman, shared a box. As the recital progressed, an increasingly uneasy Elman whispered to Godowsky: "Terribly hot here, isn't it?"

"Not," the latter dryly replied, "for pianists."

With that one concert, the 17-year-old Heifetz effectively eclipsed every rival -- with the possible exception of Fritz Kreisler -- before the public. Other great artists were to come and go during the next 50-odd years, but as far as the public was concerned, they were also-rans. There were other stars, but Heifetz shone like the moon on a cloudless night. That he was the unquestioned king of his instrument was acknowledged by every other fiddler alive. As Isaac Stern remarked, upon hearing the news that Heifetz had died, "He has been in the inner ear of every violinist since at least 1930."

He's likely to remain there, too.

As with all musicians, Heifetz had his critics, but none could deny that he was the summit of violinistic perfection. His tone, perhaps the most powerful and perfectly burnished in history, was balanced by an intense vibrato; his intonation was almost unerring; and his extraordinary virtuosity enabled him to play at speeds that made other violinists gasp.

"Young man, I would advise you to play a couple of wrong notes each day before going to bed," the playwright (and former music critic) George Bernard Shaw advised Heifetz in the 1920s. "Such perfection angers the gods."

Heifetz's technical equipment may have been the greatest in the history of his instrument, but what was more amazing was the depth and variety of his expression.

Like most of his great contemporaries (and unlike almost all the ++ violinists who have succeeded him), Heifetz used as his model the human voice. He could make the violin speak and sing and sigh, and he gave it a range of color associated only with the human voice.

This is apparent in just about every recording he ever made. It's there to be heard in Vol. I of "The Heifetz Collection," in a performance (of the 17-year-old violinist's own transcription) of Schubert's "Ave Maria."

In her own famous recording of the piece, the great Marian Anderson did not sing it any better. Every phrase Heifetz makes rises and falls naturally with a warmth of feeling that never becomes cloying. And the two performances the violinist recorded many years later are just as great; they're also almost identical to their predecessor.

These similar, matchless performances raise two fundamental points about Heifetz: The first is that his playing did not change much during the 55 years in which he made his recordings; the second is that only Heifetz could compete with Heifetz.

Listening to the multiple performances in "The Heifetz Collection" confirms suspicion that the violinist reached his peak in the 1930s and early 1940s -- in the decade or so before he reached the age of 45, the period in which most string players achieve maturity and just before inevitable physical decline sets in.

Negligible decline

But the decline in his physical skills was minuscule compared with the decline that afflicts other players. The "superiority" of Heifetz's 1935 account of the Sibelius Concerto to the one he recorded in 1959 in Chicago is all-but-impossible to hear, and the later version's modern recorded sound more than makes up for the difference.

More remarkable than the unchanging quality of the violin playing is the similarity of the interpretations.

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