Jascha Heifetz: The Complete Album Collection (Sony Classical)

Russian Violin Resounds in 103-CD box set


When Jascha Heifetz played his violin, the world listened. From the first movement of his bow, bringing forth an immaculate, vibrant technique to express the voice and soul of the violin repertoire, he had the ability to hold the listener enraptured. The arc of Heifetz’s career took him far from the fabled city and rich cultural fabric of Vilnius, then under the Russian boot, where he was born in 1901. He debuted publicly in Vilnius at five, in 1911 played before 25,000 cheering spectators in St. Petersburg, and in 1912 debuted with the Philharmonic in Berlin.

He was soon a full-time inhabitant of the world’s greatest stages.

Heifetz left Russia in 1917 and made his American debut that same year at Carnegie Hall, became an American citizen in 1925, and proceeded to show tremendous pride and authority in everything he did for his new country. Alongside his colleagues, he was a key building block in RCA’s commercial classical-music empire that lasts, under Sony’s aegis, to this day.

Celebrating the 110th anniversary of his birth, this formidable set, billed as “the biggest CD edition for a classical solo artist in the world,” lays out the full range of Heifetz’s repertoire in 103 CDs (including three hours of never-before issued recordings) and a “bonus” DVD with video of Heifetz in performance.

From the major concertos to such chamber-music touchstones as Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio and the Mendelssohn Octet, Heifetz proceeds in gorgeous Technicolor sound, performance, and presentation.

Since the set contains all of Heifetz’s recordings in their original LP sequence, some recordings, including Mozart’s Divertimento, K. 563, actually appear twice as they were released on LP more than once with different couplings. The CDs are accompanied by a 312-page hardbound book, which contains an original essay by Heifetz biographers John and John Anthony Maltese, rare photos, and a complete Heifetz discography. It is destined to become a collector’s item. In the meantime, it will provide countless hours of pleasure and inspiration to musicians and music lovers alike.

Proceeding chronologically through the set, it is impossible to resist Heifetz’s power and soul in the big concertos, his inimitable charm in the shorter pieces, and his ferocious appetite for chamber music. His readings remained relatively constant—that is, always technically supreme, but rising occasionally to greater heights. In the Brahms and Beethoven concerto recordings, he was definitely more inspired with conductor Serge Koussevitzky (than Fritz Reiner) in the former and Charles Munch (than Arturo Toscanini) in the latter. In each of the classic recordings, the intensity and command of space and time during the sequences before and after the cadenzas is remarkable heard a half a century later. And the cadenzas for these concertos, which he wrote himself and played with compelling drive and excitement, demonstrate the benefits a soloist can gain from embarking on such a course, as Joshua Bell can attest.

Heifetz’s legendary care with the smaller pieces—which used to be legitimate parts of recital programs, and many of which he arranged himself—resonates more than ever with string players today. When Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti entered the Menuhin School, she didn’t know much about recordings. That soon changed when she began listening to Heifetz; “particularly his arrangements of short pieces,” she says.

Cellist Jan Vogler recalls that his parents were “big fans of Heifetz, especially of the short pieces. Like the pianist Glenn Gould, the genius found in Heifetz’s incredible freshness and clarity of thought comes out in every bar. And, of course, his mastery of the instrument is unparalleled. The little short pieces—his recitals would often consist of one sonata, then all short pieces on the second half. What I learned from Heifetz was incredible timing. It almost seems he can make time stand still. People say he was cold. It was entirely the opposite.”
Although it became cliché for critics to describe Heifetz as cold and inhuman, in fact, the violinist added something of his own that transformed his music making as profoundly as Fritz Kreisler’s charm and warmth informed his. It was a quest for perfection not of technique—a command of the music that lay directly in the notes of the score. This quest made demands not only on his own playing, but also on the musicians, orchestras, and conductors he played with. And making the music uniquely magical was the Heifetz heart, unknowable and perhaps with personal demons on the side, but always seething with passion and fire.

Asked about the influence of Heifetz in the 21st century, the French violinist Renaud Capuçon says, “We are all supposed to play more perfect than 60 or 70 years before. When you hear Heifetz, or the young Menuhin, it’s so amazing. After two notes, you can hear [their mastery]. It’s so authentic, so pure.”

Asked to explain the magnetic appeal, violinist Sherry Kloss says that Heifetz defined Russian soul. “He experienced the essence of his time,” she says. “They had revolution, they had pogroms, they had poverty, but they also had culture. They had brilliant composers, artists, they had devoted families, they had learning, they persevered. Their generation brought their magic across continents and transformed the ‘New World’ with the ‘Old World’ language.”

Many of these issues are discussed in the Malteses’ essay that weaves details of Heifetz’s personal life, including true-life stories and anecdotes, with the history and evaluation of his performing career, and even such minute details as the microphone placement Heifetz preferred in the recording studio.

Ultimately, in this set, the big role played in post-WWII times by the increasingly sophisticated packaging of the 78s, and then vinyl, is captured in the iconic covers that graphic designer Alex Steinweiss created during the 1940s and ’50s. They lose none of their impact now, even in small CD size. The original liner notes, despite being printed in sometimes impossibly small print, are another cultural resource that will provide hours of pleasure and reflection. Authored by a varied group that ranges from uncredited to prestigious names (from music critic Claudia Cassidy to composer Nicolas Slonimsky), the notes often include behind-the-scenes details and context, and, of course, critical praise about Heifetz?

*This article appeared in Strings August 2011
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