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My Weekend With Jascha Heifetz

Jascha Heifetz set new precision standards for the classical violin.
Sony Classical Archives
Jascha Heifetz set new precision standards for the classical violin.

It's hard not to talk numbers when it comes to the new Jascha Heifetz collection. Last week Sony Classical released a 10-pound box of the famed violinist's recordings — 103 CDs in all, which the Guinness World Records people have declared the largest set of audio discs devoted to a single classical instrumentalist. If you include the hour-long DVD, that adds up to more than 75 hours of listening. Guess what I did this weekend?

I admit I didn't hear every note of the set. That would have taken more than three sleepless days and nights of listening. Still, I did sample judiciously.

Amid the dozens of famed Heifetz recordings (housed in their original album cover art) are a few rarities. There's an imposing 1937 Brahms Concerto with the Boston Symphony and conductor Serge Koussevitzky that predates the standard release with the same personnel. Plus, there's a trove of long forgotten but appealing music such as the concerto written for Heifetz by Louis Gruenberg, Arthur Benjamin's Romantic Fantasy and Ernst Toch's Vivace Molto, recorded with violist William Primrose in 1941. You can hear a few highlights from the box below. But first, a few more numbers.

Heifetz had his first lessons at age 3, gave his first public performance at 5, made his Berlin Philharmonic debut at 11, played Carnegie Hall at 16. A series of seemingly endless concert tours followed. The golden-toned announcer on the DVD states that the total mileage of Heifetz's globetrotting equaled five round trips to the moon.

My stint years ago as a drive-time classical DJ gave me a decent grounding in Heifetz's art, but honestly I had forgotten just what a miraculous violinist he was. I dipped into many points in his career in this set and was amazed to find that the masterful technique sounded virtually the same, whether in his first recording session as a 16-year-old in 1917 or in his final concert in 1972.

The Heifetz Sound

First, there's the unmistakable tone: firm, honeyed and lustrous with a compact vibrato. And then there's the technique. I think it can be safely said that there was no music too difficult for Heiftez's precision, fingering and bow speed. Although it's curious that he recorded very few of Paganini's crushing solo violin etudes, Heifetz's physical control over the instrument has seen few rivals. And it's arguable that, because of his incredible perfection, he set new standards (for better or worse) for violin playing that will remain in place for ages to come.

Yet Heifetz was not above criticism. His interpretations were sometimes thought of as mechanical and aloof. And you can often hear what his detractors are talking about when you listen to him play Bach.

Heifetz Hot And Cold

His phrasing is aristocratic yet so austere in the 1952 recording of the massive chaconne from the Partita No. 2 that, in the end, it feels rather cold-hearted. It is, no doubt, an awesome 13 minutes of playing, but in great performances of this music you should feel like you've been on a journey and emerged a changed person. With Heifetz the only thing you're sure of is that all the notes were perfectly placed.

Heifetz supporters say he acquired his reputation for aloofness because of his stiff concert demeanor, and if you simply avert your eyes the playing is far from cold. Watch the accompanying DVD and judge for yourself. Giving a recital in Paris, a stone-faced Heifetz peels off one incredible encore after another, calling out the titles with tedious comportment of a bingo announcer.

And yet if you pop in vol. 87, which contains the Mozart Concerto No. 5 with John Barbirolli leading the London Philharmonic in 1934, you'll hear plenty of warmth and tenderness.

No matter which camp you fall into, it is undeniable that Jascha Heifetz was one of the most virtuosic musicians of any stripe. The proof is in this vast vault of recordings.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.