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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Reissue Issues

Heifetz Week Dept.: Before BMG Classics (née RCA Red Seal, née Victor Red Seal, now Sony Classical) issued their complete Heifetz holdings in one compact disc set, the violinist’s recordings crept onto CD seemingly haphazardly, some issues by way of Japan. But there was a method to it. Heifetz’s longtime producer, Jack Pfeiffer, had that complete set in mind for a long time before it was issued, and programmed the individual issues in a way that he believed would make the most sense when all of them were collected – although the result was that one short work appeared on two different discs in the complete set. Here’s a review I wrote in 1998 about five of those individual issues.


VIOLINIST JASCHA HEIFETZ had a contract with RCA Victor for most of his career, and recorded hundreds of titles between 1917 and 1972. It's an impressive testimony to one of the century's greatest artists.

His repertory covered the warhorse concertos and major recital pieces, but he also championed the new and unfamiliar. The latest five-disc release (packaged and sold separately) from BMG Classics highlights a broad spectrum of those recordings and is particularly interesting on two counts: programming and sound quality.

The material was recorded between 1947 and 1968, straddling the transition from monaural to stereo, although there is no such indication on any of the discs. The mono material is gently goosed with electronically-induced separation for a rather pleasant fullness of sound.

That may have been the most daunting challenge this set presented, because there was no consistency in sound quality from session to session. The transition from a 1954 mono orchestral recording to a 1966 stereo chamber music session would be abrupt and startling without proper remastering, and it's a tribute to the engineers involved that they are able to preserve the integrity of the originals, take advantage of the greater dynamic range that compact discs allow and still impose a certain amount of that consistency.

Each of the discs averages 70 minutes of playing time, so there's room for almost a (modern) concert-worth of music. Producer John Pfeiffer has arranged each of the discs to a particular theme and taken advantage of the vastness of the Heifetz catalogue to satisfy it. You end up with pleasant recitals from disc to disc, often mixing instrumentation in a way that could never easily take place on a concert stage.

The two collections of 20th-century works are good examples. One begins with a concerto written by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco that Heifetz premiered in 1933. It is melodic, charming and difficult, basking in the bombastic romanticism of early Hollywood, and it probably would have gotten more attention from other violinists had it not appeared at a time when classical-music opinion makers were embarrassed by anything too accessible.

Heifetz recorded it in 1954 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Alfred Wallenstein. Like so many of the violinist's orchestral recordings, it features a fiddle way out in front of the ensemble – but that was his style, and that was his sound.

Although the compact disc allows you to reprogram a disc at will, I recommend listening to this one straight through. The concerto is deftly followed by Howard Ferguson's 1931 Violin Sonata, Op. 2, another richly-textured but easy-to-audit work. The pianist is Lillian Steuber, a fellow University of Southern California professor with Heifetz (she also played for Schroeder on some “Peanuts” specials).

The Heifetz-Steuber sessions were recorded in 1966 and also featured a sonata by Karen Khachaturian, nephew to the “Sabre Dance” composer, and it's a highly rhythmic, delightful work. Both were released on a single LP, but on this disc they're intelligently separated by a contrasting work, Jean Francaix's String Trio in C Major (1933), recorded with violist Joseph De Pasquale and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky in 1964.

The sound spectrum is kept more intimate on the other 20th-century disc, all duos and a trio. Debussy's Sonata No. 3 is encored with a transcription of his song “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” a favorite Heifetz encore, and the little-heard Sonata in b minor by Ottorino Respighi follows, a gorgeous, underplayed piece that could easily replace, say, the Franck sonata on a few programs. That's encored by a Ravel's “Menuet,” transcribed from the piano Sonatine. All were recorded around 1950 with Heifetz' longtime piano accompanist, Emanuel Bay.

Someone dubbed the ensemble of Heifetz and Piatigorsky with pianist Artur Rubinstein the “Million Dollar Trio,” and two of the group's three recordings (trios by Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn) already were issued on a compact disc. The Ravel Trio in a minor not only rounds out that collection, it also complements the music by Debussy and Respighi nicely and sets the stage for the leaner, more strident Duo by Bohuslav Martinu.

It's more traditional fare on the other three discs, although the programming remains admirable. An all-Mozart collection features a 1963 recording of the Concerto No. 5, Heifetz' third time in the studio with the piece – this time without a conductor, using regular players from the Heifetz-Piatigorsky chamber music series.

Continuity is achieved through contrast: the virtuosity of the concerto is followed by the quiet dignity of the Sonata in B-flat Major (recorded in 1954 with pianist Brooks Smith, Bay's successor) and then the sweep of the Quintet in g minor, a dynamic performance from a series of concerts given in the early 1960s.

Louis (or Ludwig) Spohr was much better known a century ago as a violin virtuoso, whose Concerto No. 8 was once standard concert fare. Heifetz' 1954 recording of the work is joined with his only Spohr recording, the Double String Quartet in d minor, Op. 65, recorded 14 years later. On this disc the ensemble sound continues to lessen: Beethoven's Serenade, Op. 8, a string trio, concludes the program, which also offers an interesting of the two composers.

Beethoven also appears on the final disc, with two other big names: Schubert and Brahms. It's another all-chamber music collection, comprising the Schubert's showy Fantasie in C Major, recorded with Smith in a slightly abbreviated version (Heifetz was never above taking a few liberties with scores). The star of the disc is Brahms' Piano Quartet in c minor, Op. 60, which stands alongside the somewhat larger other two essays in that form as works of orchestral magnitude.

Along with Heifetz and Piatigorsky are pianist Jacob Lateiner and violist Sanford Schonbach, in an underrated performance that takes this piece by the teeth and romps with it. Heifetz recorded the three Op. 9 Beethoven trios with Piatigorsky and violist William Primrose, the first and third in 1957 and the second, reissued here, three years later. They were separated by the significant arrival of stereo, which probably accounts for their continued separation. This is a true all-stereo disc; we can only hope that the earlier trios will find a CD home in a later issue with other, earlier Heifetz recordings.

The Heifetz Collection. Mozart: Concerto No. 5, Sonata in B-flat Major, Quintet in g minor; Spohr: Concerto No. 8, Double Quartet, Beethoven: Serenade Op. 8; Ravel: Trio, Debussy: Sonata, Respighi: Sonata, Martinu: Duo No. 2; Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Concerto No. 2, Ferguson: Sonata, K. Khachaturian: Sonata, Francaix: Trio in C Major; Schubert: Fantasie, Brahms: Piano Quartet in c minor, Beethoven: Trio in D Major Op. 9 No. 2. Five compact discs. BMG Classics.

– Schenectady Gazette, March 30, 1990

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