About this Recording
8.111359 - TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Violin Concerto / CONUS, J.: Violin Concerto / KORNGOLD, E.W.: Violin Concerto (Heifetz) (1950-1953)

Jascha Heifetz (1901–1987)
Tchaikovsky • Conus • Korngold • Sarasate


This programme features Jascha Heifetz in the kind of repertoire that fitted him like a glove: virtuoso romantic music. For the violin fancier, the chief interest attaches to the two rarely performed works receiving their only Heifetz recordings, the Conus and Korngold Concertos. Julius Conus or Yuly Konyus (1869–1942) was one of several musical siblings born in Moscow to parents of French origin. His career as a violinist and composer was spent partly in Paris and partly in his native city, where he died during the privations of the ‘Great Patriotic War’—one story has it that he actually starved to death. His E minor Concerto, of which he himself gave the première in Moscow in 1898, quickly became a favourite teaching piece of Leopold Auer and other Russian pedagogues for advanced students. In one movement and comparatively brief, it fits awkwardly into modern concert programmes. As a result, it has been championed and recorded by only a few of the great violinists—apart from Heifetz, they include Boris Goldstein, Itzhak Perlman and Sergei Stadler. Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957), a Viennese prodigy as pianist and composer, wrote one of the twentieth century’s immortal melodies in his 1920 opera Die tote Stadt, the apogee of his career, but ended up grinding out scores for Hollywood movies. His Violin Concerto, based on some of his film themes, should have been finished early in World War II for the Polish violinist Bronis1aw Huberman; but Korngold dilly-dallied until prompted by Heifetz—who dangled a generous commission fee—to finish the piece. By the time of its première in St Louis on 15 February 1947, with Heifetz as soloist and Vladimir Golschmann as conductor, Huberman had only months to live and he never performed the work. Although the concerto is not often heard in concert—it has never recovered from the American critic Irving Kolodin’s acid comment that it was ‘more corn than gold’—it has regularly been recorded.

Heifetz was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, on 2 February 1900. His father Rubin, a competent fiddler, started him on the violin when he was three before passing him on to Ilya Malkin, a pupil of Auer. At six Jascha made his début and a year later he played the Mendelssohn Concerto in Kovno. To enable him to stay with his family when he entered Auer’s class at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1910, his father was enrolled too. Heifetz became Auer’s favourite and made his St Petersburg début on 30 April the following year. On 24 May 1912, still using a three-quarter-sized instrument, he played the Mendelssohn Concerto (with piano), Wieniawski’s Souvenir de Moscou and short pieces at the Berlin Hochschule; and on 28 October 1912 he replaced the indisposed Pablo Casals in a Berlin Philharmonic subscription concert. Playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto, he impressed the evening’s conductor Arthur Nikisch, who invited him to Leipzig for the Bruch G minor Concerto (performed on 12 February 1914). In Vienna he played the Mendelssohn under Vassily Safonov and he developed steadily through the early years of the Great War. In those days he often played Bach’s Double Concerto with his Auer classmate Toscha Seidel, whom he later eclipsed. He missed the chaos of 1917 but caused his own October Revolution that year with his historic New York début at Carnegie Hall. In 1920 he made his London bow with two Queen’s Hall concerts which were so successful that he returned the same year—playing the Elgar Concerto with the composer present. He also visited Paris and Berlin; and in 1921 he toured Australia. In 1925 he took U.S. citizenship, in 1926 he played in Palestine and in 1928 he married the film star Florence Vidor (that and a second union ended in divorce). During World War II he gave many concerts for the U.S. forces. In 1947 he reintroduced himself to London with the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky Concertos at the Royal Albert Hall, before the Queen and an audience of more than 6,000. In 1949 he again offered Londoners the Elgar. When he played the sonata by Richard Strauss in Israel in 1953, riot police had to be called and Heifetz was attacked by a fanatic with an iron bar. In 1959 he performed for the United Nations General Assembly but in the 1960s he began to confine himself mainly to the West Coast of America; chamber music also loomed larger in his life, through the Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts. Having given his last concert in 1972, he grew increasingly reclusive; and he died in Los Angeles on 10 December 1987. Heifetz did some teaching but his influence was mainly disseminated through his playing and his many recordings. Although he had a 1731 Stradivarius, his favourite fiddle was the 1742 ‘David’ Guarnerius del Gesù.

At his best, Heifetz played the concerto and sonata repertoire with a strong command of structure, coupled with minute attention to detail. He held the violin high and flat, pioneering a particularly high right elbow which helped him to exert maximum bow pressure (he favoured German rather than French bows). To speak of him in purely gymnastic terms would be to overlook the sensuous beauty of his tone—yet he was the ultimate violinistic athlete, standing with feet perfectly balanced and hands in precise co-ordination. Off the concert platform, he was a good tennis player, oarsman and swimmer. With his mordant, often caustic wit, he could be highly entertaining (his parodies of bad violin playing were published on an LP under the pseudonym ‘Joseph Hague’); but he could behave like the epitome of a ‘control freak’—and he was extremely litigious. He excelled in Brahms, Bruch, Glazunov, Prokofiev, Sibelius, Spohr, Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski but in the Classics was frequently criticised for taking fast tempi, especially in later years; and he seemed to introduce an element of competition into all his music-making. Of his many commissions, the Walton Concerto was the most successful, its central movement a showcase for his ability to polish a phrase with a miniaturist’s art. His repertoire reached well into the twentieth century but he did not play the Prokofiev First, Berg or Bartók Concertos—or the Schoenberg, although it was written with him in mind. He was a fair pianist and an expert arranger who also composed popular songs.

Heifetz made three ‘official’ recordings of the Tchaikovsky Concerto and this, the middle one, is a favourite of many fans. It was made by an HMV team at Abbey Road in London, on the first two days of a five-day schedule of sessions in 1950. (On subsequent days Heifetz, the Philharmonia and the German-Czech conductor Walter Susskind set down Beethoven’s two Romances and a four-movement version of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole; but these recordings were not liked and all three works were remade a year later in America, with William Steinberg conducting.) Although HMV were using tape by this time, they were still working in 78rpm takes of not more than five minutes. Despite this handicap, the Tchaikovsky found Heifetz in an intense mood, especially in the Canzonetta; and he was aided and abetted by the magnificent Philharmonia wind section. The other works here were recorded in Hollywood with players from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, although for contractual reasons the pseudonym ‘RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra’ was sometimes used. Heifetz had programmed the Conus Concerto in recital since at least 1920, although the present writer has found only performances with piano and this studio session may have been the only occasion on which he played it with an orchestra. He finds his most melting tone for the memorable Adagio, which returns briefly after the cadenza. Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen was a Heifetz warhorse and this, the final one of three recordings, was made at the same sessions as the Beethoven and Lalo remakes. Heifetz had some knowledge of gypsy violinism—he had heard Grigoras Dinicu and had transcribed the Romanian fiddler’s Hora staccato—and he always made light work of Sarasate’s piece: note his beautiful harmonics, explosive pizzicati and terrific spiccato. As someone who spent a good deal of time in Hollywood, Heifetz knew Korngold well and played movements from his Much Ado About Nothing suite in recital. The concerto performance is notable for its improvisatory flair, especially in the Andante and parts of the finale, where Heifetz’s staccato is exemplary. Throughout the work, his aristocratic playing rescues the music from any accusation of trashy pseudoromanticism.

Tully Potter

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