INKPOT#61 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: SIBELIUS/TCHAIKOVSKY/GLAZUNOV Violin Concertos. Heifetz (EMI)
ALEXANDER GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)Violin concerto in A minor Op.82 recorded 28 Mar 1934
JASCHA HEIFETZ violin London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham*/John Barbirolli
EMI References CDH 764030 2 [79’32”] mid-price
by Ong Yong Hui
First, a confession: usually I am not very well-disposed towards mono recordings. I still cannot understand how people can bear listening to symphonies recorded monophonically, totally devoid of tone colours and shades they are, even if they are done by master conductors like Toscanini or Furtwangler. But happily my experience with mono records are rather nice. The first one is of Menuhin playing encore pieces; the sound was rather decent and did not suffer a lot as it is chamber music after all, and the playing is superb and an eye-opener. The second is this set of recordings from the 1930s – I bought it wanting to hear what the hype around the legendary Jascha Heifetz is all about. Besides, the pieces are quite standard warhorses and therefore a good way to judge how his playing defers from the average violinist. Another thing: almost all mono CDs are crammed with music to the limits, very good bargains in a sense.
For one thing, the sound here does not really affect the pleasure I have in listening to this disc. For my ignorance about mono recordings, I think the transfer here is quite well done. I hardly think of the mono sound quality upon listening to it now, and the interesting thing is that Heifetz’s violin sound may even pass off as being in an extremely old stereo recording, while the orchestra is clearly left behind in the realm of mono sound!
But what is more important is that this recording of favourite concertos leaves me in awe of the phenomenal skills of Jascha Heifetz (1899-1987). None of them sound cliched in his hands, totally absorbing they were. His mastery of the violin is quite fantastic, surmounting every difficulty in these concertos with so much ease and confidence. It is really exhilarating when you hear such a performance whereby you know that the soloist would not be a let-down even given the problems in performing the works, and the exciting speed that he is taking them through, so assured is his control of the instrument. This recording sounded to me as if it is the archetypal and perfect model of how these concertos should sound like.
And it is not only the masterful execution of the music that I have to recommend for in this recording. Heifetz is thoroughly consistent in sound production, always retaining that warm expressive tone and solid character. Just listen to the introduction of the Sibelius Concerto for an illustration. Then, continue on and hear how the cadenza shortly after that is done. Every note is played cleanly and with crystal clarity, Heifetz also giving each note in the fast passage of semiquavers its full value and a rounded tone unlike others who scrape through them. Hear the second movement for a wonderful performance of the Adagio, bringing out the emotional intensity of the music. This movement can often sound insipid in the hands of someone less involved.
Sir Thomas Beecham gives very good support for the solo violin, and rises to the occasion when the orchestra is called upon, like during the climax of the Adagio …totally heartwrenching. I am surprised that I was not once moved by this movement when hearing modern virtuosos on state-of-the-art digital sound. Instead here I am being emotionally taken by the music on a mono recording (got your point about the worth of mono recordings, Isaak). The finale, as expected, is very spectacular. Heifetz has absolutely no qualms about taking it very fast, and dazzles with his scorching techniques and commanding presence in front of the orchestra.
The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is as perfect as it can get. As with the Sibelius, I think it can bear quite a lot of different interpretations, so Heifetz did not exhaust all the ideas there, but the Tchaikovsky concerto is quite… one dimensional I should say, despite the pleasure that I do derive in listening to it. Perfect intonation, absolutely not a single mistake anywhere, the piece is played with easy flair and exciting pace. Imagine, the first movement only lasts seventeen minutes for him while Arthur Grumiaux (on Philips) does it in eighteen and Maxim Vengerov crawling at over nineteen minutes. No quality however is sacrificed despite the speed thrill, and this is what I meant when I said that Heifetz has incredible control over the music and his violin.
Glazunov’s Violin Concerto draws a very expressive tone from Heifetz, and somehow the sound does not resemble the one that his violin produced in the other two works (maybe the violin is changed, or that the recording conditions were different). Whatever the cause, the violin sounded more mellow and warm here, just right for this Romantic piece of music. The cadenza sounds effortlessly done and the following Animando movement is amazingly fast, and plenty of fun!
Here I cannot resist but to say a few words about Maxim Vengerov’s recording of the Tchaikovsky and Glazunov concerto (Teldec 4509-90881-2). I bought it upon the rave recommendations accorded to it by either the Penguin the Gramophone guides, exactly which one I cannot remember [It probably makes little difference anyway, since both are products of the same people. – Ed.].
Wanting the Glazunov (left) concerto recorded in modern sound and not minding another Tchaikovsky, I bought it without much hesitation, and really regretted my folly. The Tchaikovsky, at the sort of speed mentioned above, sounded so insipid that it tested my tolerance to sit through listening to it; I keep wondering when a certain phrase would end as average performances would have been done with that phrase long ago while Vengerov still toys around with it.
The performance of the Glazunov concerto, although not lacking in lyrical qualities and quite good in its own right, just does not match up to Heifetz’s rendition, and the last movement positively sounds a little too slow by comparison. Bottomline: If you want these two violin concertos, get the one with the great performance and mono sound rather than the lacklustre modern recording.
In Singapore, this disc can be found or ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City), Tower (Pacific Plaza and Suntec City), Borders (Wheelock Place) or HMV (The Heeren).
Ong Yong Hui thinks that reviewing CDs is a love-hate affair – it either make you love it more or make you sick from the constant repetition of the music while doing the job.