About this Recording
8.111367 - WALTON, W.: Violin Concerto / CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO, M.: Violin Concerto No. 2 (Heifetz) (1950-1954)

Jascha Heifetz (1901–1987)
Walton • Saint-Saëns • Sinding • Castelnuovo-Tedesco


By the late 1930s Jascha Heifetz was established, especially in America, as the violinist par excellence. Fritz Kreisler might be better loved—although the 1935 scandal over his fake baroque pieces had dented his popularity—and Yehudi Menuhin might garner more publicity, but Heifetz stood alone for virtuosity and polished perfection. To get a request for a concerto from him, therefore, was tantamount to a royal command. He was very particular about his requirements for such a work, however. If it did not have the right mixture of lyric and virtuosic writing for the violin, he was not interested—he treated the 1937–38 Concerto by Arnold Bax, which was dedicated to him, with icy indifference, even though he played and recorded a transcription of Bax’s Mediterranean. William Walton had much better luck. A tentative proposal from Heifetz in 1936, confirmed the following year, was followed by another from the British Council, for a violin concerto to be given its première at the New York World Fair in 1939. By dint of some fancy footwork, Walton got the two commissions combined, with Heifetz slated as the World Fair soloist. Then he began to have cold feet: was he capable of writing for Heifetz? He thought of Kreisler, Joseph Szigeti and Antonio Brosa (who was not interested) as substitutes. But in March 1939 Heifetz, who had been sent a draft score, cabled: ‘Accept enthusiastically.’ In May, Walton and his mistress Viscountess Wimborne sailed to America for three weeks of collaborative graft by violinist and composer, especially on the third movement. Owing to the incompetence of the British Council, the New York première did not take place; and by the time the Concerto was performed in Cleveland on 7 December 1939, with Artur Rodzinski conducting, Walton was working as an Air Raid Precautions ambulance driver in wartime London. A British première by Henry Holst, planned to coincide with Walton’s honorary doctorate at Oxford in February 1941, also fell through and Holst did not play the Concerto until 1 November 1941, at the Royal Albert Hall with Walton conducting the LPO. Meanwhile Heifetz performed it a number of times in America. Eugène Goossens in Cincinnati was especially enthusiastic: he and Heifetz rehearsed more than five hours for their public performance and on 18 February 1941 made the first recording together (Naxos 8.110939).

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 St Petersburg Conservatory class 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 Concerto in G minor (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. 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 exceeding 6,000. After the 1946–47 season, he took a twenty-month break from the concert hall. In 1949 he played for President Truman and President Chaim Weizmann of Israel in New York and again offered Londoners the Elgar, also recording it. When he played the Tchaikovsky Concerto at Lewisohn Stadium in July that year, 20,000 people were in the audience and 1,000 had to be turned away. Heifetz became one of the first soloists to play at the new Royal Festival Hall in London, in May 1951, and visited London again in June 1953 and November 1954. In April 1953 he made his second tour of Israel but insisted on breaking a twenty-year ban on German music by programming Richard Strauss’s Sonata, saying: ‘There are only two kinds of music—good music and bad music.’ Following his Jerusalem recital, a fanatical young man attacked him with an iron bar, injuring his right arm. Heifetz then toured Italy and Europe, shrugging off his pain. 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 10th 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.

Without a doubt, Walton’s Violin Concerto was Heifetz’s most successful commission. Its debts to Prokofiev—the overall shape influenced by the First Violin Concerto, the finale by the Third Piano Concerto—suited his musical personality; and the central movement, described by Walton as ‘a kind of tarantella’ and reflecting the fact that much of the work was written in Italy, showcased Heifetz’s ability to polish a phrase with a miniaturist’s art. His recordings represent two phases in the Concerto’s progress. The 1941 version featured the original score; but Walton soon made revisions, mainly toning down the percussion; and that version (first performed by Holst, Malcolm Sargent and the Liverpool Philharmonic in Wolverhampton on 30 November 1943) was the one published in 1945 and used for this 1950 recording under the composer’s direction. Walton was an effective conductor of his music and this performance, neatly accompanied by the Philharmonia, has acquired mythic status. The next two pieces were in Heifetz’s recital repertoire from at least 1919 (Sinding) and 1922 (Saint-Saëns). The Havanaise, the main melody of which was suggested to the composer by the crackling of a hotel room fire, suited Heifetz’s elegant violinism to perfection and he made three recordings, the last two with orchestra. A 1937 version with John Barbirolli was very successful in 78 rpm days (Naxos 8.110943); and this one with William Steinberg served the LP era well. The Suite by the Norwegian composer Christian Sinding is one of the great Heifetz recordings, typical of his ability to take a second-rank piece and elevate it to the first rank. His scintillating virtuosity in the Presto, his beautiful tone and exemplary legato in the Adagio and his evocation of a Hardanger fiddle in the folksy Tempo giusto all go to make this performance definitive. Amazingly, it was probably the only one he ever gave with orchestra. Heifetz played a lot of music by the Florentine composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, starting in 1925 with Capitan Fracassa. The two men met in 1926 and the next year Heifetz performed the Concerto Italiano. The Lark and the Concerto ‘I Profeti’ were written for Heifetz in 1931 and the Concerto was given its première by him in New York on 12 April 1933, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NYPSO. When Mussolini brought in a raft of anti-Semitic legislation in 1938, Toscanini helped Castelnuovo-Tedesco to emigrate to the U.S. and Heifetz got him a job in Hollywood, writing film scores for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Later Heifetz played the ‘Figaro’ Concert Paraphrase (based on Rossini’s Largo al factotum and originally written for Gregor Piatigorsky’s cello); the waltz Alt Wien; and Sea Murmurs, an arrangement of one of the Shakespeare Songs. Heifetz liked the Concerto ‘I Profeti’ very much, but said ruefully that ‘no one else did’. The piece, which shows Castelnuovo-Tedesco bidding for the sort of archaic Jewish style established by Bloch, ‘is supposed to be a kind of Biblical concerto, an evocation of times in the glorious past’, in the composer’s words, and each of the three movements portrays one of the Old Testament prophets. However, although it predates Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Hollywood days, one constantly expects to see Charlton Heston heaving into view, especially in the opening movement. Heifetz lavishes all his artifice on the music, rising to considerable heights in the slow movement, his favourite part of the Concerto.

Tully Potter

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