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.