By Sasha Margolis
In 1917, the sixteen-year-old violinist Jascha Heifetz left his native Russia, just as it was being engulfed by revolution. Making his way with his family across Asia and the Pacific, he traveled from America’s West Coast to New York, where in October he gave his Carnegie Hall debut. The concert initiated a revolution of another kind. Nobody had ever seen or heard a violinist like Heifetz, whose cold and impassive stage manner belied the most vibrant intensity, united with preposterous dexterity, flawless intonation, and incredible force of personality. As the young violinist made his way from opener to encore that afternoon, the many fiddle players in the audience graduated from nervous curiosity to outright awe, while everyone else swooned. From that day onward, Heifetz reigned as king of the violin.
Check out more from our Essential Historical Recordings series
Born in 1901 in what is now Vilnius, Lithuania, Heifetz took his first lessons from his father. Next, he studied in St. Petersburg with Leopold Auer, renowned at the time as the teacher of Mischa Elman, though he’d soon be more famous for teaching Heifetz. A very young Jascha made something of a splash in Germany before the outbreak of the First World War. But it was his New York debut that set him on a path to super-stardom.
At a time when classical music commanded mass attention, Heifetz’s image—instrument held pridefully high, Russian-gripped bow tracing figure-eights—came to seem inseparable from the idea of the violin itself, as did his smolderingly sensuous sound. Heifetz toured everywhere, commanding the highest fees, and collaborating with the greatest conductors and fellow instrumentalists. Settling in Beverly Hills, he hobnobbed with Charlie Chaplin and George Gershwin, featured in movies, had concertos written for him by Hollywood composers. And he recorded.
Heifetz’s repertoire was enormous, comprising practically every major piece written for the instrument, with some twentieth-century exceptions, and myriad minor ones. Because he recorded practically everything he played, and because his standard was sky-high, an essential Heifetz discography could easily take in half the violin repertoire.
However, certain Heifetz recordings are especially iconic. Some pieces are indelibly associated with his name, and there were composers with whom he had an especially close, intuitive connection. Whether you want to renew the pleasure of listening to this king of violinists or experience it for the first time, these recordings are a great place to start.
Concerti: Heifetz and the Tchaikovsky Concerto were a match made in heaven. The great violinist’s blend of urgency and suavity, and his ability to make every filigreed note speak without relying on musical compromises, made him an ideal interpreter. In lesser concerti such as the Conus, Heifetz’s choice of lightning-fast tempi unavailable to mere mortals enabled him to reduce the melodic material to its most gestural and compelling essence, elevating what might otherwise have been less-than-riveting music. And Heifetz’s glowing sound, gorgeous slides, and aural caressing of expressive intervals were perfectly suited to accessible twentieth-century concerti such as the Korngold. Other standouts, among many, include Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and Vieuxtemps No. 5.
Encores: Heifetz’s essential encores come in a wide variety of flavors. There is jazzy Americana, including not only the irresistible Gershwin Three Preludes and Porgy and Bess Suite, but also Robert Russell Bennett’s Hexapoda, in which a swinging Heifetz, never one to just mail it in, gives a truly jaw-dropping rhythmic effort. Heifetz brings bewitching colors and entrancing intimacy to Debussy’s “Beau soir,” “La plus que lente,” and “La fille aux cheveux de lin.” Works of Soviet composers include a heart-piercing Shostakovich C-sharp minor prelude, a furious Prokofiev “March” from The Love for Three Oranges, and a wildly uninhibited Khachaturian “Sabre Dance.” Other quintessential Heifetz encores range from the avidly virtuosic Wieniawski “Scherzo Tarantelle” to the lovingly schmaltzed-up “White Christmas,” the beguiling Ponce “Estrellita,” and the shamelessly show-offy “Hora staccato.”
The rest: Heifetz’s technical perfection, sonic sheen, and assertive musical temperament made him the ultimate performer of great showpieces. It’s impossible to choose among his gutsy Tzigane, sultry Havanaise, crackling Rondo Capriccioso, and rhapsodic Zigeunerweisen. Of special note are a stunningly physical Sinding Suite and a stirringly declamatory Bloch Nigun. With pianist Benno Moiseivitsch, Heifetz recorded a mighty Beethoven “Kreutzer” Sonata. And he played much chamber music with august partners. Perhaps most compelling are the Mendelssohn D Minor Trio, with Gregor Piatigorsky and Artur Rubinstein, and the Dvořák Piano Quintet, with Israel Baker, William Primrose, Piatigorsky, and Jacob Lateiner.
Please note the above are affiliate links, meaning Strings will earn a small commission (at no cost to you) when you click through and make a purchase. Thanks for your support!