Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler

JaschaHeifetzPlaying
Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987)

 

Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddlerthe American Masters documentary which aired last week on PBS, offers an inside look at the life of one of the twentieth century’s most influential violinists. The program includes rare film and audio clips and features interviews with prominent contemporary violinists and former Heifetz students. It follows Heifetz from child prodigy roots in Russia, where he was a student of Leopold Auer at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, to his immigration to the United States and longtime residence in Southern California. In addition to his private and somewhat lonely personal temperament, the documentary highlights Heifetz’s rigorous sense of discipline and emphasis on scales.

Jascha Heifetz raised the bar for all violinists who followed, his name becoming synonymous with technical perfection. His recordings suggest an exhilarating sense of pushing limits…staying right “on the edge” without ever falling. This quality seems to have been present from the beginning. As the story goes, the young Jascha launched into Paganini’s Moto perpetuo at such a stunningly fast tempo that Leopold Auer gasped, saying, “He doesn’t even realize that it can’t be played that fast.” Heifetz’s playing transcended sentimentality, unleashing raw power and blinding intensity.

A Sample of Heifetz Recordings

The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony:

The Sibelius Violin Concerto with Walter Hendl and the Chicago Symphony in 1960:

Chaconne, From Partita No.2 In D Minor, BWV 1004 by J.S. Bach:

The Girl with the Flaxen Hair by Claude Debussy:

Heifetz’s arrangement of George Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So:

There is no top. There are always further heights to reach.

If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.

-Jascha Heifetz

Joshua Bell’s Bach Album

Unknown-24Joshua Bell released his newest album yesterday. The CD, simply titled “Bach”, is Bell’s first recording collaboration with the London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields since becoming the orchestra’s music director in 2011.

If you’re expecting another predictable round of Bach concertos, you may be surprised. This album includes the monumental Chaconne from Partita No. 2 with Mendelssohn’s rare piano accompaniment (adapted for orchestra), as well as Schumann’s accompaniment of the Gavotte en Rondeau from Partita No. 3. It’s not the way you would want to hear solo Bach every day. In fact, Mendelssohn’s addition practically turns the Chaconne into a completely new piece. Still, these offerings fall to the category of historical curiosity and are worth exploring.

It’s the A Minor and E Major Violin Concertos which make this recording stand out. The connection between Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields feels more like chamber music than a violin solo with orchestra accompaniment. There is incredible attention to detail, balance, and sense of dialogue. In the haunting second movement of the E Major Concerto, the bass line converses with the solo violin, while long sustained chords in the violins suggest an atmosphere of mystery. Bell occasionally adds ornaments and captures the joy of the Baroque dance-like rhythms. Air on the G String is also included. “Bach” is available on iTunes.

The release of Joshua Bell’s CD coincided with his return to the Washington D.C. metro yesterday. This time, unlike his extensively publicized 2007 experiment, commuters recognized him and stopped to listen.

You can hear Bell with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in this clip of the final movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Also, listen to him play the Bach Chaconne in its original, unaccompanied form:

The Chaconne Across 300 Years

My last post featured music constructed around a repeating bass line, or ostinato. We listened to Johann Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D as well as passacaglias by Handel and Bach.  Now, let’s return to the ostinato  with another type of musical composition that was popular in the Baroque period, the chaconne.

Like the passacaglia, the repeating bass line of the chaconne gave Baroque composers a great opportunity to write endlessly inventive variations.  Most chaconnes are built on a four note scale that descends from the tonic (the home pitch of any key) to the dominant (the fifth scale degree).  This simple four note pattern creates its own satisfying drama.  Listen to the chaconne bass line.  Can you feel the pull of the lowest note (the dominant) back to the first note (the tonic)? With each repetition of this bass line, the music moves away from “home” and then returns.

Chaconne in G Minor…Tomaso Antonio Vitali (1663-1745)

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This piece was ascribed to Vitali by the nineteenth century violinist Ferdinand David, but it is unclear who actually wrote it.  Here is a performance by the great David Oistrakh:

Chaconne from “Roland”…Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)

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Suzuki violin students know Jean Baptiste Lully because of his Gavotte in Book 2. Lully was one of the most important French Baroque composers and was especially influential in developing French opera.  This chaconne comes from the Third Act of his opera, Roland.  If you like this music, you might also enjoy another chaconne Lully wrote for the opera, Phaeton.

Partita in D Minor for Solo Violin BWV 1004…Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Ciaccona

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Bach wrote six unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin.  A partita is a suite, or collection of pieces.  This monumental chaconne comes at the end of the Partita in D Minor.   In a Washington Post interview, violinist Joshua Bell called this chaconne “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.”

In a letter to Clara Schumann, the composer Johannes Brahms wrote: “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

There are many great recordings of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Recordings I recommend include performances by Henryk Szeryng, Hilary Hahn, Julia Fischer, Ilya Kaler, Gidon Kremer, Arthur Grumiaux and Mela Tenenbaum. Tenenbaum’s recording features a separate CD with her thoughts on the music and is worth exploring for any musician who is studying solo Bach.

Here is a performance by the legendary Russian violinist, Nathan Milstein.

Violin Concerto…John Adams (b. 1947)

II. Chaconne: Body through which the dream flows

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In 1993 American composer John Adams wrote a chaconne for the second movement of his Violin Concerto.  It’s easy to hear echoes of the past in this haunting and atmospheric music.  In what ways is this chaconne similar to its Baroque predecessors?  In what ways is it different?  What feelings does the music evoke?

Pearls (from the album, Love Deluxe)…Sade (Released in 1992)

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Interestingly, this song from the British band, Sade is built on the same descending chaconne bass line that Vitali, Lully and other Baroque composers used.