New York Newsday and Newsday (c) 1995 Newsday Inc. All rts. reserv.


TEXT: JASCHA  HEIFETZ, who was born in 1901 and died Thursday, picked up a violin for the first time when he was 3 years old; in little more than a decade, he would be the instrument's undisputed master.

If  ever  there  was  a genuine child prodigy, it was this young genius from  the  backwoods  of  Russia  who,  by  the  age  of  6, was capable of performing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto flawlessly from memory. Heifetz was a force of nature - like Minerva, he seemed to have sprung to life fully formed, musical perfection personified.

When he made his London debut on May 5, 1920, the playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw wrote the young Heifetz a letter. "Your recital has filled me and my wife with anxiety," he said. "If you provoke a jealous God by  playing  with  such  superhuman  perfection, you will die young. I earnestly advise you to play something badly every night before going to bed, instead of saying your prayers. No mortal should presume to play so faultlessly."

There is a famous story about Heifetz' American debut, at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 27, 1917. Mischa Elman, then the most celebrated young violinist in the  world,  attended the concert with the pianist Leopold Godowsky.

During the course of Heifetz' brilliant performance, a progressively more anxious Elman  turned  to  his companion and noted that the hall had gotten awfully warm. "Not for pianists, Mischa," was Godowsky's immediate response.

Whether or not this story is accurate, there is no doubt that Heifetz changed the  standards of violin playing forever. "You and I might as well take our fiddles and break them across our knees," the great Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler told his colleague Efrem Zimbalist after a first encounter with the young genius.

Listen to the first records that Heifetz made for RCA Victor, still in print  after 70 years, and then compare them with the records of Elman, who was considered his principal competition.  Elman's discs are often ingratiating - his tone is never less than warm and consoling, but he has a tendency to play slightly off center, so that many of his records are riddled with errors.  With Heifetz there is, right from the beginning, a sense of tonal center that is unlike anything that had been heard before, fortified by an absolute confidence and  cool  artistry that was near Buddha-like in its composure.

The word "Heifetz" means jewel in Russian, and the comparison is startlingly apt: He was glittering, multi-faceted and hard - in his relationships with people, in his stage behavior and even (thought some) in his music making. His colleague Arthur Rubinstein freely acknowledged that Heifetz  was the greatest violinist of his day, but added that his playing did not touch the heart.

Indeed, Heifetz made no attempt to play to an audience: He expected the audience to come to him. He never affected the warm, gemutlich sensibility of a Kreisler, he shunned publicity and was parsimonious with encores. On stage, he was implacable, with a motionless stance, impeccably formal demeanor and the coldly beautiful face that betrayed not a trace of whatever passion he might have been feeling.

Still, Heifetz' effortless technical perfection, his seamless tone, his accuracy  of  intonation  and  his  ability to bring an infinite variety of nuance into his bowing combined to make his playing unique. A listener knew immediately when it was Heifetz playing. Like him or not (and there were listeners  who  preferred the work of Kreisler, Josef Szigeti, Szymon Goldberg and  others),  Heifetz revolutionized violin playing and, by extension, raised technical standards on every other instrument as well.

He was not a man ideally suited for democracy, in music or in life. He ruled all that he came into contact with, ruled it or simply walked away. His much vaunted series of chamber music discs with Gregor Piatigorsky often devolved into violin concertos, much to the detriment of works such as the Mendelssohn Octet or the Schubert Cello Quintet, which require a certain amount of give and take. Goethe once defined chamber music as a discourse between reasonable individuals; here there was no discourse at all, only a star and its satellites.

Heifetz' relationships with his accompanists was essentially that of master and servant. Brooks Smith, who was his pianist for the last 20 years of his career, always called the violinist "Mr. Heifetz." Once, flushed with feelings of friendship and pride after a successful concert, Smith had attempted to put their relationship on a mutual first-name basis. He was met with an icy, imperious rebuff - "My name is Mr. Heifetz." Stung, Smith made no further attempts at informality. Heifetz had few close friends. Both of his marriages ended in divorce and his relationships with his three children were distant.

FOR THREE decades after his American debut, Heifetz was a ubiquitous figure in the music world. He was the most expensive (and, reportedly, the most demanding) performer of his time, and made hundreds of records, personal appearances and even a Hollywood film.  But he began to curtail his appearances after World War II. In his later years, he performed mostly chamber music, and he retired for good after a recital at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in Los Angeles in 1972. Thereafter, he spent most of his time alone, behind the closed gates of his Beverly Hills ranch house, with its elaborate gardens and panoramic views of the city. He attended no parties or cultural functions, and his only personal contacts were with a small circle of old friends (most of whom predeceased him) and a handful of select students he agreed to teach at the University of Southern California.

Some celebrated violinists passed through studies with Heifetz, most notably the Tchaikovsky award-winner Eugene Fodor. But he was not a good teacher, for he had the genius' natural impatience with the limitations of mere talent and simply could not understand why his students did not play any better than they did. Personal contact was kept at a minimum, and many of his students felt it necessary to work with another teacher on the side, while still claiming the status of a Heifetz pupil.

THE YEAR before his final concert, he played the Bruch "Scottish Fantasy" in Paris. It is a short piece and when it was over, he returned to take his bows before a standing ovation but steadfastly refused to play another note. The audience yelled, stamped, whooped and hollered, but Heifetz was unmoved.

"I have played 62 years in public," he explained backstage, irritated. "Enough already.". "But, Maestro, you play so beautifully," an admirer commented.  Heifetz nodded impatiently. "That's your problem, not mine."

Still, the records exist, and the best of them are extraordinary: The icy  brilliance  of  Heifetz'  interpretation of the Sibelius concerto; the slashing energy of his performances of Glazunov, Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps and Walton;  the  other-worldly  grace  of  his  first  recording  of  Mozart's "Turkish"  concerto.

It was an amazing life, and Heifetz himself realized it. Inborn genius, a harrowing escape from wartorn Russia, a historic Carnegie Hall debut that swept the world before him, association with the most glittering figures of Broadway  and Hollywood, and undisputed mastery of the music world for half a  century - it's the stuff of legend. Once Heifetz was asked whether he ever read fiction. "I don't have to," he replied with a wry smile. "My life itself is fiction."