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

“Badly Written” Tchaikovsky: The First Piano Concerto

tchaikovsky_r620x349

Clumsy…badly written…vulgar…with only two or three pages worth preserving.

That was the harsh assessment of Tchaikovsky’s friend, the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, following a private reading of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 on Christmas Eve, 1874. Rubinstein went on to call the piece “worthless” and “impossible to play.” But Tchaikovsky refused to “alter a single note” (he later made a few revisions in 1879 and 1888) and the concerto now joins a long list of beloved war horses prematurely deemed “unplayable.” The violinist  Leopold Auer had a similar, if slightly less devastating reaction to the Violin Concerto.

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto breaks the rules. It opens with an unabashedly expansive melody in the “wrong” key of D-flat major. Beyond the first movement’s introduction, this powerful theme isn’t heard again, but it opens the door for all that follows. As Kenneth Woods points out, the concerto develops from motivic cells present in this memorable opening “seed.”

In the second movement, a series of instrumental voices, each with its distinct persona, contributes to the musical conversation. First we hear the solitary flute against the backdrop of spare pizzicati. We step into a warm new world with the first statement of the piano. Listen to the velvety descending string line and the bassoon in the background. Before the movement is over, the oboe, horn, and cello have contributed to the conversation.

One of my favorite moments in this concerto comes at the end of the final movement (beginning around 38:20, below), as our sense of expectation is stretched almost to its breaking point. As the bass and tympani hold a dominant pedal, the violins search for the theme we know is coming (38:38). At 39:31 the final notes of the piano’s dramatic cadenza seem to be leading a clear tonic resolution. Another composer might have given us that clear downbeat resolution. But, because of the harmony of Tchaikovsky’s theme (beginning on the dominant), the triumphant orchestral tutti begins and for a split second we’re still hanging on the dominate.

Here is pianist Evgeny Kissin with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic on New Years Eve, 1988:

  1. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso — Allegro con spirito 0:00
  2. Andantino semplice — Prestissimo 24:40
  3. Allegro con fuoco 33:18

Additional Listening

  • a younger Martha Argerich and then another performance from a few years later. At the end of the second performance the audience and conductor Charles Dutoit urge a clearly annoyed Argerich to play an encore and she gives in with a magical performance of Schumann.
  • Eugene Istomin with the Philadelphia Orchestra

Philippe Quint’s Unedited Tchaikovsky

61Fs5yW6KyL._SL500_AA280_In September, Russian-American violinist Philippe Quint released a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, accompanied by conductor Martin Panteleev and the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. If you already own a thousand recordings of the Tchaikovsky, there are good reasons to also include this CD in your collection. Quint offers a distinctive and introspective performance, which emphasizes a rounded, singing tone, even in the most difficult passages of the first movement’s cadenza. He also includes Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard original final movement.

As Philippe Quint explains in this interview, Tchaikovsky originally dedicated the concerto to Leopold Auer, the legendary teacher of Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein, among others. Auer considered the third movement to be “unviolinistic” and set the concerto aside. Tchaikovsky withdrew the dedication and rededicated the work to Adolph Brodsky, who gave an ill-fated premiere in Vienna on December 4, 1881. Leopold Auer later revised the final movement and this is the version we almost always hear performed.

Listen to Quint’s performance of the first and second movements and the standard Auer version of the third movement. Then compare it with Tchaikovsky’s original version of the final movement (below). The influence of ballet seems to be just below the surface in much of Tchaikovsky’s music. Throughout ballet scores like The NutcrackerSwan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky often repeats short, symmetrical phrases. We hear a similar kind of repetition in the third movement of the Violin Concerto (1:01-1:09, for example). Auer condensed the score, cutting these repeated passages.

Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2

This recording also includes Anton Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35 (1894). Arensky, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and the teacher of Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninov, dedicated the Quartet to the memory of Tchaikovsky. The second movement is a series of variations on a theme from Tchaikovsky’s Legend, No. 5 from 16 Songs for Children, Op. 54. Arensky’s Quartet features the unusual combination of violin, viola and two cellos. Here are the first, second and third movements.

Dylana Jenson’s Sibelius Recording

violinist Dylana Jenson
violinist Dylana Jenson

If you’ve never heard Dylana Jenson’s 1981 recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, take a moment and listen. This soulful and blazing performance is widely regarded to be one of the finest recordings of the Sibelius ever made. It’s a rare gem which deserves more attention.

A child prodigy and student of Josef Gingold and Nathan Milstein, Jenson was awarded the silver medal at the 1978 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow when she was seventeen years old. Shortly after recording the Sibelius, her career suffered a devastating setback when she was forced to return a 1743 Guarnerius del Gesu violin which had been given to her as a long-term loan. The wealthy collector who owned the instrument had discovered that Jenson was planning to get married and concluded that she was not sufficiently serious about her career.

Dylana Jenson now plays a modern instrument made for her by Samuel Zygmuntowicz. You can hear that violin on Jenson’s excellent 2009 recording of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 and Barber Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra. A passionate teacher, Dylana Jenson lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Here is a live performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Dylana Jenson and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy:

Here are a few more links:

  • A short documentary showing Jenson’s studies with Josef Gingold at Indiana University. This clip offers a fascinating snapshot of twentieth century violin history.
  • The Saint-Saëns Third Violin Concerto around 1980
  • The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in 1978
  • Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata
  • Sarasate’s Zapateado on the Merv Griffin Show, includes an interview with violin teacher Manual Compinsky

Remembering David Nadien

David Nadien
David Nadien

American violinist David Nadien passed away last week at the age of 88. A student of Ivan Galamian, Adolfo Betti and Adolf Busch, Nadien first soloed with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 14. Between 1966 and 1970 he served as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. You can hear him play the “Pas de deux” violin solo from Tchaikovsky`s Swan Lake here

For years Nadien taught at the Mannes College of Music and performed as a top freelance studio musician in New York. His immaculately clean, Romantic style of playing, suggestive of violinists from Elman to Milstein, was an inspiration to a younger generation of musicians. The Suzuki violin repertoire, books 1-10, are among his diverse recording credits. Notable recordings include the Franck Sonata and Tchaikovsky Concerto as well as showpieces such as Sarasate’s Habañera, Weiniawski’s Scherzo Tarentelle and Massenet’s Meditation from Thais

Here is his recording of Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella:

Find on iTunes