From The New Criterion Vol. 14, No. 1, September 1995
©1995 The New Criterion

Jascha Heifetz
by Tim Page

Some ten years ago, I set out to write the first full biography of Jascha Heifetz. The violinist was then still living - in a grand, gated mansion toward the top of Beverly Hills - but, despite intercession on my behalf from several mutual acquaintances, Heifetz refused to cooperate in any way. He had never much cared for publicity; in 1939, he summed up his life for Deems Taylor: “Born in Russia, first lessons at three, debut in Russia at seven, debut in America in 1917. That’s all there is to say, really. About two lines.”

Over the next months, however, I conducted almost twenty hours of taped interviews with those who had known Heifetz throughout his life. Mistaking quantity for quality, I thought I was making progress until the evening I played through part of my archive. And then I realized that I had absolutely nothing on which to build a book - only a vague portrait of a rigidly formal, exceedingly isolated, and not especially pleasant man who happened to play the violin with a technique that knew no difficulties and an idiosyncratic and affecting warmth that transcended the patrician authority of his approach.

Apparently, there were few events in the Heifetz story: he came, he played, he conquered, again and again - and then he went home. Friendships were uncommon and circumscribed, brought to an end, more often than not, by petty quarrels; there were two marriages, followed by two fairly nasty divorces. One is tempted to say that Heifetz ended up a lonely man, but since there is no evidence that he knew, believed, or even suspected this was the case, all one can do is affirm that most of us would have been very lonely under similar circumstances.

To date, there has not been a reliable life of Heifetz. And so The Heifetz Collection, a vast trove of sixty-five compact discs (arranged into forty-six self-sufficient volumes) issued earlier this year by BMG Classics, may prove the best “biography” of the violinist for many years to come. Certainly, it captures everything that was most interesting and attractive about Jascha Heifetz. He had one of the longest recording careers in history - more than sixty years, a span rivaled only by Mischa Elman, Vladimir Horowitz, Yehudi Menuhin, Claudio Arrau, Leopold Stokowski, and the Australian baritone Peter Dawson (some other musicians will be joining this club very soon). And now, with one small but significant omission, the entire discography is available to us, in digitally remastered sound, with program notes that are engaging as well as specific.

String players and aficionados with the means (approximately $600) will doubtless have purchased the entire set by this point. It is by any standard a worthwhile investment—the listener will be rewarded by close to 100 hours of superlative violin playing— but it is also curiously static. There is a natural human temptation to funnel facts into tidy narrative, to chart “growth” in our artists over time, but Heifetz was not a markedly better violinist in 1972 than he was in 1917. He seems to have sprung to life fully formed - male-child Minerva with a fiddle - and, if anything, in some of the later Heifetz albums, one has the sense of a perfection that is rapidly tiring of itself.

Still, it is this very technical perfection that made Heifetz so important. One may question his interpretations - indeed, one may actively dislike them - but, on a purely objective level, it doesn’t matter very much. We live in a century that has placed enormous value on the ability to “prove” merit - remember those twelve-tone compositions that were inseparable from their analyses? the art works that came ready-made with theoretical justification? - and Heifetz can be proven. Whether or not we like what he does with his violin, there can be no denying that he elevated performance standards to a new level of exactitude. After Heifetz, a slurred phrase was no longer accepted as a soulful indulgence; it was only a slurred phrase. He showed just what could be done with a violin; if Heifetz is partially to blame for the mechanical, metronomic violinists of today - those aging Wunderkinder who skate flawlessly and meaninglessly through everything that is put in front of them - the fact remains that he was a genuine Olympian, however austere.

Almost all of Heifetz’s recordings were made for what was initially the Victor Talking Machine Company, was then RCA Victor, then RCA Red Seal, and has now been transmogrified into a division of BMG Classics. The exceptions are some fine performances for EMI in the 1930s, a handful of charming smaller pieces for Decca in 1945, and the live recording of Heifetz’s 1972 farewell recital in Los Angeles that was issued on Columbia Masterworks. All these have been incorporated into The Heifetz Collection; the only known omission among Heifetz’s published recordings is a remarkable Russian 1911 disc that turned up in the mid-1980s and for which BMG was unable to secure the rights. (A London-based magazine called The Strad issued portions of this precious souvenir on a plastic “giveaway” disc inserted in the pages of its February 1986 issue; suffice it to say that Heifetz was already recognizably Heifetz before he reached puberty.)

Those who don’t care for Heifetz’s work sometimes dismiss him as a great encore player. Such an estimation is unfairly reductive, but he really was an absolute master of the violin miniature. And, because the one-sided 78-RPM record could only contain roughly four and one-half minutes of music, most of Heifetz’s first recordings were devoted to encore pieces.

How well our grandparents knew the music Heifetz recorded between 1917 and 1925, in his teens and early twenties, at the old Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey! Here they are - transcriptions of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” Schumann’s “Widmung,” Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song,” and Chopin nocturnes, fragments from concertos by Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn, showpieces by Paganini, Wieniawski, Sarasate, and others. The playing is gripping, original, and fully mature. Perhaps Heifetz lacked the intellectual probity of Szigeti, the glowing and gigantic (if sometimes rather glutinous) tone of Elman, and the sheer “olde world” charm of Kreisler. But he made up for these liabilities with performances of unparalleled technical accuracy (no tape splicing in those days), a sure sense of structure (each recording has its own Platonic perfection, with carefully delineated beginning, middle, and end), and what can only be described as the genesis of a modernist aesthetic. There is sentiment in abundance but little sentimentality; while Heifetz does not banish portamento altogether he uses it sparingly and he will not descend to histrionic manipulation. “When [Bruno] Walter comes to something beautiful, he melts,” Toscanini once said, in a moment of exasperation. Heifetz never melts, but I can’t imagine many 1990s listeners finding these records chilly. The passion is subtle, the artistic personality unusually self-effacing for its era. But both are present.

Throughout much of this century, we have placed an emphasis on what might be called all-purpose musicians; just recently has it become acceptable—indeed, outright fashionable - to specialize (note the careers of such current performers as John Eliot Gardiner and the Kronos Quartet). Heifetz, in common with other early “superstars” such as Toscanini and Horowitz, was not only expected to play everything but to play everything equally well - the Baroque and Classical repertories, the Romantic sonatas and concertos, a cautious smattering of contemporary music. In retrospect, through recordings, strengths and weaknesses have become apparent. It used to be heresy to suggest that Toscanini was generally a more convincing interpreter of Rossini and Verdi than he was of Beethoven and Brahms but, for many of us, when we judge from the recorded evidence, such is our conclusion. Likewise, I can affirm that the scores in which Heifetz is the most consistently reliable are those by what Virgil Thomson used to call “cold-climate composers,” including music from Heifetz’s native Russia.

For example, Heifetz recorded the Tchaikovsky Concerto three separate times - in 1937, with the London Philharmonic under Barbirolli; in 1950, with the Philharmonia under Walter Susskind, and, finally, in 1957, with the Chicago Symphony under Reiner. All of these performances have their excellences; the last boasts vivid recorded sound and the most virtuosic combination of orchestra and conductor (although I continue to find Heifetz’s earliest reading of the solo part more dazzling and intrinsically poetic). Still, you can’t go wrong with any of them; this is rich, haunting, melodic music, imbued with a gypsy warmth made all the more potent by Heifetz’s refusal to milk it beyond its proper boundaries.

The Heifetz Collection contains two chimerical renditions of the Glazunov Concerto in A minor; only Michael Rabin, on EMI, is more moving, infusing the pyrotechnics with an ethereal sweetness (the disintegration and premature death of this violinist was nothing less than an artistic calamity). Heifetz’s first recording of the Sibelius concerto, with Sir Thomas Beecham and the London Philharmonic Orchestra -appropriately cool and sometimes stern, yet always deeply felt and even seductive - has long been the standard by which other performances were judged and found wanting. (I would place Heifetz’s 1959 interpretation, with the Chicago Orchestra and Walter Hendl, among the preterite.) There are two recordings of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, both with the Boston Symphony (Koussevitzky’s conducting is rather more idiomatic than Munch’s, although the sound is pallid by comparison). And there are numerous encore pieces - vignettes by Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Rachmaninoff, Glazunov, and Tchaikovsky, exciting and nostalgic by turn, inevitably given their full due.

Heifetz is also consistently top-drawer in what might be described as capital-V “Violin Music” - the works of Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps, Sarasate, Kreisler, and Paganini. Not all of these pieces are necessarily capital-A Art, but they provide heroic challenges for a violinist. Heifetz’s command of his instrument is virtually flawless, of course, but he is not satisfied with mere athleticism. He never forgets that this is music, after all, and he plays it with neither undue grandiloquence nor flashy “Look at Me!” condescension. Pity the listener with heart so hard that the Bruch Concerto and “Scottish Fantasy” no longer stir a misty tenderness.

Heifetz’s Bach was controversial, even before the early-music movement had established its strictures. The 1946 recording of the Concerto for Two Violins is a stunt - Heifetz plays both solo parts - and not a very successful one; the piece profits from two distinct personalities weaving around each other, in surprise and symbiosis. (A later reading, with Erick Friedman, one of Heifetz’s rare students, is also less than persuasive.) Heifetz recorded all the solo sonatas and partitas in 1952; the performances are fast, strenuous, bristling with nervous energy, and, to this taste, rather brutal. He places an emphasis on attacks and contrasts, to the detriment of line and continuity.

Some Bach performances from 1935 are more musical. Indeed, as a rule of thumb, when one has a choice between two competing Heifetz recordings of a given work, it is likely that the first version will be preferable. A case in point is the Mozart Concerto No. 5 in A (K. 219). Heifetz recorded this three times, in 1935, 1951, and 1963. The later performances have their strengths (and some of the weaknesses we find in the 1952 Bach solo pieces) but the 1935 recording (with Barbirolli) is sublime, from the unaccompanied, triadic entrance of the violin, so pure and serene that it seems to emanate from another plane of understanding—“above the battle,” in Romain Rolland’s phrase - through the cheerfully industrious reiterations of the concluding rondo. The central movement is particularly beautiful - long-breathed and exquisitely nuanced, with a grace and gentle stillness strangely enhanced by the burnished antiquity of the recorded sound.

It is unfortunate that Heifetz’s only recording of Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat (K. 563) should have been made with the constrictions of the 78-RPM disc so obviously in mind. The performance - by Heifetz, William Primrose, and Emanuel Feuermann - is artful and lively (even though the tempos will sound stressed to latter-day listeners) but this is music that takes time to unfold, and the neglect of Mozart’s indicated repeats diminishes it. Put another way, we need more than thirty-three minutes for this particular piece.

Heifetz was an uneven collaborator. The late series of Heifetz–Piatigorsky chamber concerts (with admirable musicians such as Primrose, Jacob Lateiner, and Leonard Pennario) are some of his worst records. A sense of hurry prevails, the Heifetz tone all too often takes on a wiry astringency, and on some occasions the playing is downright sloppy (a ghastly violin/cello arrangement of the Stravinsky “Suite Italienne” should never have been released). The 1961 performance of the Schubert “Cello” Quintet sounds uncomfortably like a disappointed violin concerto, as does a Mendelssohn octet dating from the same year. Heifetz’s influence on his fellow musicians was sometimes baleful; Primrose made a spacious, elegant, and altogether cherishable recording of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante (K. 364) with the American violinist Albert Spalding, but when he came to record this work with Heifetz, his playing was distinctly agitato (as was Heifetz’s own) and the result might be described as “Dueling Fiddles.”

Yet there are some marvelous collaborations in the Heifetz discography. I am especially fond of the Brahms Sonata in D minor (op. 108) that he recorded with the brilliant young American pianist William Kapell - two fiery temperaments in full force, relentlessly goading each other on, yet somehow maintaining a unified lyricism. (Heifetz and Kapell had planned to record all three Brahms sonatas; after Kapell was killed in a 1953 plane crash, the violinist lost interest in the project, and so Heifetz’s way with op. 78 and op. 100 can only be imagined.) The piano-violin-cello trio recordings with Artur Rubinstein and Emanuel Feuermann (and, after Feuermann’s death, with Gregor Piatigorsky) - Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky - are empathic, honey-toned, and justly famous. If some of these “Million Dollar Trio” recordings are now period pieces - and they are definitely of their time and place - that period now seems a golden age, one that we may only look back upon with affection and wonder.

In general, Heifetz’s recordings of Beethoven’s ten sonatas for violin and piano are fleet, furious, charged with dramatic tension - “shot from guns,” as the old advertising slogan might have had it. This manner is most effective in the later sonatas, with their inherent Sturm und Drang; I prefer a more genial, expansive, playful approach to early Beethoven, whose sense of humor has long been undervalued. Mention should be made of Heifetz’s two principal accompanists, Emanuel Bay and the long-suffering Brooks Smith; the latter was a superb partner  - necessarily deferential (throughout their twenty-year association, Heifetz never permitted Smith to call him by his first name) but always musical, always precisely there.

In this century, very few of our most celebrated performers have done much for the music of their time; the obvious exceptions - Koussevitzky, Stokowski, Rostropovich, Pollini - merely prove the rule. It was left to a young unknown named Louis Krasner to bring us the violin concertos of Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg, to Albert Spalding to commission (but not play) the Roger Sessions concerto and to play the first performance of the Samuel Barber concerto.

Still, several concertos were fashioned for, then played and recorded by Heifetz— pieces by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Louis Gruenberg, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklos Rózsa, and William Walton. The last of these is probably the best of the bunch (and it is the only one to have entered the repertory), although the Korngold and the Rózsa have a sumptuous “Hapsburg in Hollywood” majesty, and Heifetz’s recording of the Gruenberg is rightly prized as an extraordinary example of violin velocity. Heifetz never recorded anything by Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, or Bartók; he played only minor works by Shostakovich, Milhaud, and Stravinsky; he may have been entirely unaware of the music of a newer generation of modernists. He did well by Ernest Bloch, however - wailing, rhapsodic performances of the two violin/piano sonatas - and he made one album of sonatas by Howard Ferguson and Karen Khachaturian (Aram’s nephew) with his University of Southern California colleague Lillian Steuber.

The forty-sixth and final box in The Heifetz Collection deserves some special attention, for it was not only the violinist’s last recording but his last public performance anywhere (October 23, 1972). The entire recital, a benefit for USC, was preserved, something that would have been unthinkable in 1917. Aside from that, the program - in both its planning and its execution - was not markedly different from one Heifetz might have offered decades before.

From the beginning of the Franck Sonata - rapt, centered, directly linear in its phrasing, immaculately aristocratic in its bearing - there can be no mistaking the artist. The Richard Strauss Sonata, a product of the composer’s sixteenth year, follows immediately, and Heifetz brings pride and surging power to this brash youthful declaration of genius. Alfred Frankenstein, who was covering the concert for The New York Times, thought three movements of the Bach E-major Partita were “absolutely perfect” - and so they were, from Heifetz’s subjective standpoint; certainly he does exactly what he wants to do with them, and purists be damned. And, finally, there are the encores, including Debussy’s “La Plus que lente” (which Heifetz had first recorded back in 1925), some Bloch, Kreisler, Rachmaninoff, Ravel.

The same old stuff? Perhaps. But there is something noble about Heifetz’s constancy. He knew what he wanted and he spoke his piece; if it was essentially the same piece at seventy-two that it was at seventeen, so be it. Few performing artists have exercised such meticulous control over their creative lives, in such a tumultuous era. (One wonders, sadly, whether a “new” Jascha Heifetz would be recognized by the record companies - would he be deemed hip enough? would he have the right hairdo? would he have “attitude”?) In any event, eight years after his death, Heifetz’s life story can still be told in something like the “two lines” he gave to Deems Taylor. But The Heifetz Collection speaks volumes.