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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Divinely Inspired Marvel

Heifetz Week Dept., Guest Blogger Edition: He made his Carnegie Hall debut – a much-anticipated event – on Oct. 27, 1917. The musical press (back then there was a musical press) was there in force. In a characteristically muted fashion, the unsigned review in the New York Times noted that the young violinist “produces tone of remarkable beauty and purity, a tone of power, smoothness and roundness, of searching expressiveness, of subtle modulation in power and color. His bowing is of rare elasticity and vigor, excellent in many details, as is his left hand execution, which is accurate in all sorts of difficulties. In his technical equipment, Mr. Heifetz is unusual.” For all-round gushing, however, nothing beat Musical America’s take on the afternoon.


Jascha Heifetz in 1917
IT MAY NOT BE that the greatest violinists now browsing in these fertile pastures are quite serious in their rumored decision to shut up shop, burn their fiddles and withdraw to distant wastes or sombre forests to invite oblivion because Jascha Heifetz has come upon us. The power and the glory of the newcomer may not be as ruthlessly destructive as all that. Nevertheless, this Russian boy of seventeen summers is beyond all possibility of cavil a divinely inspired marvel, whom advance report has belied only by undervaluation, and the most breathtaking, the most crushing, the supremest genius of the violin that has confronted us in the past decade or perchance even more.

His American debut last Saturday afternoon was one of those extraordinary occasions that stifles skepticism at its source and that carries away upon a tidal wave of seething enthusiasm the common boundary marks of moderation. A few strokes of a flame-tipped bow over strings become vocal with a fabulous sweetness sufficed to tell the story of a triumph that will reverberate through the extent of the land these months to come. The force and fervency of the general delight, which grew as the afternoon advanced, were of the sort that make an event historic. There was a huge audience which included, it seemed, every violinist within a radius of two hundred miles. And their enthusiasm amidst the general delight was not the least. No one, for that matter, seemed more transported than Maud Powell, who stayed to applaud frantically till the very last encore.

A True Genius

Jascha Heifetz is a transcendentally great violinist; and more, a very great artist—one who, saving the comparison, can stand in the presence of a Kreisler and not be ashamed. Between the measure of his art and the tenderness of his years there can be no relative considerations whatsoever. Heifetz at forty may—and probably will—be a more superlative executant and expositor than he is today. But were he twice his age the wonder and admiration at what he now encompasses would be undiminished.

Villiers de Ll’Isle-Adam exclaimed once of Richard Wagner: “He is cubic; he comprises all.” In a sense, such a definition is applicable to Heifetz. He embodies a concentration of the supernal violinistic and musical traits—virtuosity purged of every element of grossness or vain display and the instinct for beauty carried to the very poignancy of loveliness. His program last week was in large degree commonplace and superficial; on the whole, unilluminating in its intellectual requisitions. Of what great issues Mr. Heifetz is capable in music imposing demands for deeper mental processes, for profounder emotional soundings and more consuming passions we must forbear for the moment to divine. But the intelligence, the emotion, the sensibilities and aspirations are there and in the manner of their exploitation the present and potential greatness of the artist stands overpoweringly vindicated.

The tawdriest music which he essayed last week he invested with a loftiness, dignity and sheer ecstasy of beauty that lent it the illusion of surpassing worth—veritable re-creation, transfiguring past belief. But where the question was of greater music the accent became as that of luminous prophecy, magnificently effortless in its expression. In truth, an element almost preternatural envelopes the art of Jascha Heifetz. Heine once drew a comparison between the pianists of his time, defining Thalberg as a king, Liszt as a prophet and Doehler as a—pianist. Almost one is tempted upon encountering Heifetz to invoke Heine’s classifications in respect to living violinists—in which case Kreisler is king, Heifetz prophet and—but the candidates for the third distinction are too numerous for record. A mere child, there proceed from this newest visitant the streaming splendors of maturest vision, a seer-like quality of divination, a dream-wrought fabric of poesy beyond words transporting, puissant, inevitable.

The whole phenomenon is of a kind before which the accomplishment of the most talented artists among us—save one—pale their ineffectual fires. In his superb and poise and modest, gentlemanly bearing the boy exacts no less amazement. As if entranced in a celestially impelled business, his attitude is one almost of indifference to his audience. He acknowledged its tempestuous applause on Saturday with a few perfunctory bows and in some cases not at all. When some clamored immoderately for encores he returned to the stage and forthwith attacked the next group on his program. While playing his demeanor is as free from mannered affectations as his performances.

A Glorious Artistic Entity

A conscientious chronicle is assumed to involve a more or less categorical enumeration of an artist’s specific virtues. With Heifetz the total impression is so complete, so overwhelming and indivisible that a reviewer must long rather to expatiate on the glorious artistic entity than to dissect and particularize. It may, however, be proper to point out that the newcomer plays with a tone so lustrous and silken, so fragrant, so intoxicatingly sweet that only the molten gold of Fritz Kreisler can be conjured up in comparison. But though it wrings the tears from the eyes by its lambent beauty, its vibrancy and infinite play of magical color, its nature bespeaks a singular aristocratic purity rather than an unrelieved sensuousness, though its power of emotional conveyance and suggestion is unparalleled. And, however forcible the vigor of Mr. Heifetz’s superb, sweeping bowing, not the miiIutest impurity of any other sort mars its ceaseless enchantment. From the pitch the violinist never wavers by the breadth of even a hair. In his rhythm he is unfaltering, in his musicianship unchallengeable.

A technique is his transcendent, illimitable. A technique, however, contemptuous of its own colossal, all-embracing prowess, spiritualized and addressed at all times solely to idealistic ends. But if one barely notices it for its own sake, one is ever and anon reminded that nothing is impossible to it.

Heretical as the assertion may seem, we greatly doubt if Ysaÿe, at the height of his powers, ever played the Vitali Chaconne with a greater breadth and elevation of style, a more sculpturesque, plastic quality or a firmer grasp of its import than did Mr. Heifetz last week. A hazardous statement, but let it stand! The faded and battered Concerto of Wieniawski passed through a veritable rebirth. Mozart’s Minuet proved delicacy incarnate, Wilhelmj’s Chopin translation a closer approach to its poetic original than we have ever known it to be in this form, Professor Auer’s intrinsically uninteresting Beethoven arrangement bits of gem-like witchery. Of the Paganini Caprice he made an etherealized tone poem. His most notable encores were the Tartini-Kreisler Theme and Variations and Cui’s “Orientale,” this last made inimitably atmospheric. A transcription of one of Popper’s whirling ’cello pieces showed, as did many other numbers on the program, Mr. Heifetz’s passage work to be as exquisitely wrought as finest golden filigree.

Andre Benoist, latterly with Albert Spalding, provided accompaniments worthy of the newcomer’s art. In the Vitali Chaconne, Frank L. Sealy was the organist.

– H.F.P.

THE PROGRAM: Chaconne, Vitali; Concerto in D Minor, Wieniawski; “Ave Maria,” Schubert; “Menuetto,” Mozart; Nocturne in D Major, Chopin-Wilhelmj; Chorus of Dervishes, “Marche Orientale” from the “Ruins of Athens,” Beethoven-Auer; “Melodie,” Tchaikovsky; Capriccio, No. 24, Paganini-Auer.

Musical America, Oct. 1917

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