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Friday, September 17, 2021

Double Your Pleasure

From the Record Shelf Dept.: The reason for this reissue is explained in the text. I’m just not certain if it truly ran in Metroland, the Albany-based alternative weekly for which I wrote for many years. I have copies of the 1999 issues in a box in my attic, but I’m not motivated at the moment to go searching. What if I don’t find the piece in any of the issues? Better to confidently speculate. If it ran, it would have been on or about the date I’ve credited below.


THERE’S NO GETTING AROUND the inferior sound of very old recordings, but legendary stories describe alternatives. The Heifetz and Toscanini recording of the Beethoven violin concerto is dry and muffled, but it’s said that a warm-sounding version exists. And then there’s the problem with the 1939 Heifetz-Feuermann recording of the Brahms Double Concerto.

Back in the days of 78s, longer works needed side breaks every four minutes or so, and these were agreed upon by the engineer and performers before recording began. Thanks to a misunderstanding at the Brahms session, the first movement’s side breaks weren’t correctly engineered. Rather than re-record the movement, RCA Victor’s engineers dubbed the 78 masters before pressing copies, with a resultant deterioration in sound. Every issue since then, including vinyl and CD, includes a surfeit of noise and a lack of clarity.

But the session’s producer kept test pressings of the originals, and these were transfer engineer Mark Obert-Thorn’s source for the current release. The difference in sound is remarkable. Orchestral nuances suddenly appear, and the soloists themselves have a far nicer edge to their sound.

Violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Emanuel Feuermann recorded only a few items before the cellist’s untimely death in 1942, and the Brahms concerto is probably the peak of their association. A youthful Eugene Ormandy brings out the vigor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the only commercial recording both soloists made with the group, and there’s an overall intensity that didn’t make it into Heifetz’s later stereo recording with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Even the last two movements of the piece, unmarred by excessive duplication, sound better in these transfers than in the BMG (owner of the RCA catalogue) release.

The other recordings on this collection appeared together on a Biddulph CD, but well complement the Brahms concerto. Heifetz and pianist Emanuel Bay recorded Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in 1936, and it was a standards-setter for this cheerful piece. The first of Brahms’s two cello sonatas beautifully explores the sound of the instrument, and Feuermann’s 1934 recording with pianist Theo van der Pas also established a hard-to-match standard. These recordings also benefit greatly from Obert-Thorn’s transfer skills. For historic recording enthusiasts, it’s an unbeatable collection.

Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Feuermann
Music of Brahms (Pearl)

Metroland Magazine, 11 March 1999

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