A POKER-FACE GENIUS WHO WILL BREAK YOUR HEART: The inimitable art of Jascha Heifetz

The much-missed violinist Aaron Rosand once recalled a specific Heifetz concert performance – it was the world premiere of Louis Gruenberg’s action-packed, movie-style Violin Concerto. “He stood there like a god,” mused Aaron affectionately, “immobile and immaculate with his waistcoat, silver watch and chain, bowing these sounds that went straight to your heart. It was incredible”. Extant films of Heifetz in performance confirm that same impression and yet even now some commentators equate a lack of visual demonstrativeness with a supposed coolness of interpretation, the strongest possible argument for not seeing who’s playing. (‘Who wants to watch people work?’ was Sviatoslav Richter’s take on music videos). ‘Poker-face’ by the way is a term that Heifetz claimed others used when describing how he looked on stage. And fast speeds? The ‘Complete Stereo Collection’ that I’m recommending below includes, in addition to elegant Mozart, assertive Beethoven, forceful Brahms (Solo and Double concertos), searing Sibelius and expressive 20th century works by Rózsa and Arthur Benjamin, a whole plethora of chamber music recordings where your pulse will quicken as the tempo increases.

Take Mozart’s G minor Quintet – one of numerous recordings from the ‘Heifetz-Piatigorsky’ chamber music series (sample below) – the breathless sense or urgency, tragedy even, of the first movement, light years removed from the more relaxed, dainty ‘crooked pinkie’ style so often favoured by the Viennese. I remember Gramophone magazine raving about this recording when it first came out as part of a vinyl box set, and when Radio 3 (then the Third Programme) broadcast the G minor one Saturday morning this Mozart-sceptic was won over by the sheer intensity of the playing – the minuet pitilessly dramatic, the slow movement so rich in expressive inflections that I could hardly breathe for the duration. Come the super-swift finale and I was overwhelmed, much as I would be by the accompanying Schubert, Brahms, Franck and Mendelssohn masterpieces that confirmed elevated standards already established by the Quintet. People wrote in terms of a string playing ‘summit’ and they weren’t wrong. Yes there are other ways to play this sort of music (think of Adolf Busch, Joseph Szigeti, Sándor Végh, Pablo Casals, Isaac Stern and so forth) but Heifetz & co would regularly visit a single phrase with such ardour and heightened colour that the effect stayed with you long after the music had faded from earshot.

Schubert’s late Fantasie provides a fine example of the older Heifetz at his most rugged, a cork-faced W H Auden to compare with the dashing Errol Flynn of his youth (or Busch’s princely traversal) … but, again, it’s what you learn from listening that matters most – the sense of line, even when frail, and the elevated transition to the excited closing variation. Tchaikovsky’s sextet Souvenir de Florence (another fairly ‘late’ recording) is as rough as hell, a real onslaught in fact, but so honest in its reckless enthusiasm, so fearless, that any attempt at resistance is futile.

I shan’t bore you with a blow-by-blow resumé of the whole collection. There’s no need for that, but if you can follow my thinking thus far you’ll know what to expect from the rest. Heifetz levels with you nose-to-nose; he’ll brook no compromise when it comes to musical feeling and he won’t let the odd slipped note get in the way of an ‘as-live’ spontaneous performance (there’s a whopping slip near the end of the finale of Beethoven’s Trio Op. 1 No. 1). Heifetz was famously averse to stitching re-takes into the main recording; the truth and nothing but …, might have been his motto. Try the brief trio of Bach Inventions for size, or the (cut) finale to Mozart’s ‘Turkish’ Concerto. Always there’s this feeling that Heifetz is allowing you access to elevated front-room music-making. You feel privileged and enriched to be there. At least I do, always.


Mozart G minor Quintet – i (allegro)

4 thoughts on “A POKER-FACE GENIUS WHO WILL BREAK YOUR HEART: The inimitable art of Jascha Heifetz

  1. Tully Potter

    I have to say, Rob, that there is a different view of the Mozart G minor Quintet led by Heifetz. For me, it amounts to a crime against the music. I can take a variety of approaches, and I don’t know any with crooked pinkies (makes it hard to play the violin, let alone the viola). On my own shelves are many versions including one led by Accardo, several by the Amadeus with Aronowitz, one by the Smetana Quartet with Suk, the Quatuor Sine Nomine with Oleg, the Nash Ensemble, the Léner with d’Oliveira, the Quatuor Pro Arte with Hobday, the Budapest with Katims, the Griller with Primrose. Those are just the few that come to mind. What they all have in common is a sense of a conversation among friends. I do know one or two chamber recordings by Heifetz that have an element of conversation, but even then it’s only an element. He sounds, to me, incapable of giving, of offering the music to his colleagues. That’s not what I mean by chamber music. If anything his other Mozart quintet and the Schubert are even worse… It’s the same attitude that makes most of the sonata recordings unlistenable for me – the pianist is not invited in, or given licence to ‘play out’. One can say a lot about Isaac Stern, and most of it has been said, but he wanted something to play against when he appeared or recorded with a pianist.


    1. There isn’t a music commentator on earth I’d rather read than you Tully but when it comes to Heifetz in chamber music we both appear to have adopted contrasting default positions. Where I’d most disagree with you is regarding the manner of musical conversation which in Heifetz’s case reaches levels of intensity undreamed of by most of his peers or successors. The Mozart G minor’s first movement has Heifetz and Piatigorsky leap to answer each other from opposite ends of the sound spectrum. Time and again the violas are invited into the fray while violinist Israel Baker, who is virtually Heifetz’s equal in terms of tonal allure, follows his leader with sweetness as well as energy. Mendelssohn’s Octet is similarly combustible, less because of its virtuoso element than because that very quality you claim is lacking – conversation – is present in animated abundance. The situation with pianists is often different and although I love Heifetz’s way with Beethoven on his (mono) recordings of the Sonatas I’d agree that Russian-trained Emanuel Bay rather plays the role of Heifetz’s ‘chap’, meaning subservient and supportive rather than inspired or especially ‘conversational’. Brooks Smith was I think in a different class as you can hear both in the Schubert Fantasy and, most especially, Saint-Saens’ First Sonata, the musical equivalent of Elysian Fields – the tranquil slow movement is glorious. True, Smith doesn’t play out, but then neither does Heifetz – which is true of so many of his small ensemble recordings. It’s the beauty of his sound that’s so conspicuous, rather than the way he projects it. Heifetz obviously loved chamber music and to my ears you can hear it on his recordings. He is frequently credited as being the last century’s greatest violinist (I know you don’t agree) and yet his chamber music discography outreaches those of many rivals, Grumiaux and Stern being notable exceptions. Gramophone’s ecstatic review of the original 3-lp set (in 1962, reviewer: Denis Stevens) says it all: “playing through these discs is an awe-inspiring experience …. it is worth its musical weight in gold. Mono or stereo, beg, borrow, or better still buy, there has never been anything like this before in recorded chamber music.’ I couldn’t agree more, even now, nearly sixty years later. And as Pristine Audio have just released the Mozart Quintet, Franck Quintet, Brahms Sextet No.2 and Mendelssohn Octet (2 cds, on PACM108) you can test the waters for yourself – try the Octet’s first movement on https://www.pristineclassical.com/products/pacm108


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