Heifetz: the violinist whose very name equaled excellence
New York — ``What's in a name!'' Shakespeare had Juliet exclaim. In the case of Jascha Heifetz, everything was in the name - quality, standards, musical ethics, a dedication to art and the pursuit of excellence. For this alone, the legendary violinist, who passed on last week, earned his sizable place in the history of musical performance. Heifetz was considered the greatest violinist of the century, and one of an elite list of musicians who revolutionized the art of performance on their instruments. Heifetz played so perfectly - at least by standards set before Itzhak Perlman came on the scene - and with such caring for the music at hand, that he was revered by all violinists, even his most celebrated rivals.
That his historic career unfolded in great measure at a time when it could all be recorded for posterity is cause for celebration. We always think what a thrill it would be to have had Paganini on disc, yet we have Heifetz from scratchy 78s right through to early but vibrant stereo. And now that his mono and stereo LPs are being digitally remastered, a whole new generation can have Heifetz on compact discs.
For me, Heifetz was a household word. My grandmother, who studied violin as a girl, used to tell of first hearing him play on a friend's radio in the '30s, and how she all but stopped the party in progress until she found out who this fantastic - she also used the word unique - fiddler was. As soon as she found out, she had a new musical idol. One of her treasured mementos was a photo portrait of him taken by a friend of hers, signed ``To Gabrielle, Sincerely, Jascha Heifetz, 1947.''
Is it any wonder that I first learned the major violin repertoire from Heifetz's records? To this day, I treasure his accounts of the Sibelius Concerto in D minor (with the Chicago Symphony, Walter Hendl conducting), as well as the Brahms and Tchaikovsky (the Chicago under Fritz Reiner). He commissioned several concertos, one of which, by William Walton, is still in the standard repertoire. He recorded it twice, the second time with the composer conducting. To hear those rising, arching phrases so freely spun out, so gorgeously phrased and thrillingly projected, is to know what Heifetz was all about.
It's the same with his Sibelius - firm, thrilling, seemingly effortless. Among his other recordings, I have always been fond of the sentimental Korngold concerto he commissioned, which in those days was paired with Lalo's ``Symphonie Espagnole,'' dazzling performances both. He had a rare ability to inflame the Prokofiev Second Concerto with panache and an animal grace (either in the mono account with Serge Koussevitsky or the stereo with Charles Munch, both with the Boston Symphony). His chamber music recordings with Arthur Rubinstein and Emmanuel Feuermann, recorded in '41, and later with Gregor Piatigorsky, are classics as well.
Heifetz, who studied under the great teacher Leopold Auer, was part of a group of Russian virtuosos who established major careers in the West - Milstein, Elman, Zimbalist. He debuted with the Berlin Philharmonic at age 10; in the 1920s, his Carnegie Hall concerts were stormed by hordes of frantic fans. Fritz Kreisler suggested, after hearing the young prodigy, that all violinists might break their instruments over their knees.
Heifetz felt that a great artist deserved to be well renumerated, yet he never used his art to make money. His ruthless standards allowed for no pandering to new trends, to cheap effects. He is said to have had disdain for showman musicians and actually encouraged that they be hissed. He knew the excellence his name implied, and he spent his career living up to that name. When it became clear to him that he was no longer able to sustain those standards, he quietly retired to his home in Los Angeles.
His RCA records were phenomenal sellers in their day. And when just about all of his pre-stereo-age recordings were reissued in a five-volume ``Heifetz Collection,'' a new generation of record buyers had a chance to discover this unique artist. He was very probably the last serious musician who lived for his art, and one of the few in this century whose name symbolized more than a musician and artist, but an entire professional ethos.