Jascha Heifetz — Violin Concertos
By the end of the nineteenth century the romantic violin concerto, which had seemed to be the property of the French, Italians and Germans, had spread its wings to be taken up by the new wave of nationalist composers — witness the fact that the three popular but very different works on this disc were written by a Russian, a Pole and a Finn. Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880), one of the best violinists of his day, was from Lublin in Poland but was trained in Paris, was highly popular in Russia and towards the end of his all-too-short life taught in Belgium. His concertos, written for his own use, display an endearing mixture of Eastern European melodic content and Franco-Belgian charm. The Second, composed in 1862 and published eight years later, has always been the more popular of the two and at one time it was played by most of the great violinists. Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) did not have the best of luck with his concertos, at least initially. The Violin Concerto was written in 1878 for the young Josef Kotek but he did not feel able to perform it and the composer’s second choice, Leopold Auer, at first rejected it. On when Adolf Brodsky took it up did it begin to make its way — and it did so in the teeth for fierce criticism from the great Viennese critic Guard Hanslick among others. Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was, like Wieniawki, a violinist although he gave up thoughts of a virtuoso career fairly early on. His Concerto, completed in 1903, had a rocky début and he revised it in 1905, cutting an interesting subsidiary idea from the finale in the process. He finally rededicated it to the young Hungarian virtuoso Franz von Vecsey, who made it successful with the public.
The 1935 and 1937 performances on this dic were among the first substantial recordings made by the Lithuanian-bron virtuoso Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987), recognized at the time as the finest violinist in the world. He had been especially popular in his adopted country the United States since 1917, having burst upon the scene with a New York recital which is still talked about. He had been a top Victor recording artist since then and his discs had also done well in Europe, where they were marketed by His Master’s Voice and its affiliates; but up to 1934 he had made no concerto records. RCA Victor and HMV arranged a two-pronged strategy by which he would record in England with the young John Barbirolli conducting and in America with the charismatic but controversial Leopold Stokowski. The English end of the deal went well, as Barbirolli was an excellent accompanist, and early in 1934 successful performances of the Mozart ‘Turkish’ and Glazunov Concertos were set down. But the attempt to record the Sibelius Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra that December resulted in a clash of wills with Stokowski, disagreements over tempi and a performance which Heifetz refused to have issued. And so, for the time being, Heifetz’s major projects were centre on England, where he had a big following. In March 1935, with a patch-up session in December, the Sibelius was successfully remade with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting his own London Philharmonic. The Tchaikovsky Concerto followed in 1937 before RCA Victor found congenial American partners for Heifetz in Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. After World War II, the violinist regularly retuned to London to record with such maestros as Beecham, Sir Malcolm Sargent and Walter Susskind.
During those later years, Heifetz recorded all these three concertos again; in fact he did the Tchaikovsky twice. So why are we listening to these 1930s recordings when later ones exist, made with more modern technology? Well, ‘progress’ in the recording industry was never straightforward. When the microphone and electrical recording came in during 1925, there were those who muttered that the warmth of the acoustic process had been lost. When the 78rpm process gave way to tape in the late 1940s, it was felt in some quarters that the new medium was brittle and overbought in sound. When mono changed to stereo, some listeners missed the coherence of the old mono sound picture. And when digital sound emerged, there were complaints of coldness and glassiness. Heifetz played in a particularly brilliant style and many connoisseurs feel that the old 78rpm system, for all its faults, captured the ‘Heifetz sound’ in a more sympathetic way than the early tape machines. Take this recording of the Wieniawski D minor Concerto. Not only has the solo part never been better played but Heifetz never did anything more beautiful — especially the second subject of the first movement. Go to his 1954 recording and you find better orchestral playing, more streamlined conducting by Izler Solomon and a performance which gains by being played in longer takes — in 78rpm days, the work had to be recorded in four or five-minute sections in a stop-go fashion which could be quite frustrating. Heifetz give much the same interpretation in 1954 as in 1935 and his playing is just as immaculate. But does it sound so good? Heifetz used mainly gut strings throughout his career and the old 78s seemed to love that sonority, lending it a subtle halo of warmth. The early tape seemed to dry it out to a degree, making it sound a little hard; and with someone such as Heifetz, who rarely went in for romantic lingering, any hing of a clinical or businesslike approach was fatal.
Similar points can be made about the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius performances. Some favor Heifetz’s second recording of the Tchaikovsky, with Susskind conducting the superb Philharmonia; but the London Philharmonic of the 1930s was also a marvelous orchestra, full of first-rate players, and Barbirolli was an ardently romantic conductor. Heifetz always played the edition by his teacher Auer, who eventually saw the error of his ways and performed the concerto but made a few cuts and changes, especially in the finale. The Sibelius has the freshness of a pioneering project. One might have expected Vecsey to make the first recording but he died tragically early in 1935 without leaving any concerto records. It would be some sic years before anyone tried to emulate the Heifetz/Beecham performance and curiously, the next four versions would be made by women. The Sibelius is now the most often recorded violin concerto and yet this Heifetz interpretation, with its superfine tuning and seemingly inevitable phrasing, has lost none of its ability to amaze.
Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world's most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings. Obert-Thorn describes himself as a 'moderate interventionist' rather than a 'purist' or 're-processor,' unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performance to be heard with the greatest clarity. There is no over-reverberant 'cathedral sound' in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny brass and piercing mid-range of many 'authorised' commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially released restorations.