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"Every single note Heifetz played was better than any he’d ever play"

James Ehnes talks us through his favourite five recordings by the legendary virtuoso, and tells us what they mean to him and to violinists today

Photo: Ben Ealovega

‘It’s not like I remember any specific point when I first heard Heifetz,’ says James Ehnes of one of the towering figures of 20th-century violin playing, five of whose recordings he has gathered together for an exclusive IDAGIO playlist. ‘My father is a musician, actually a trumpet professor, but Heifetz is one of those players who transcended his instrument. So my dad had a whole slew of his recordings.’

But it was not only the young Ehnes’s father who exposed him to Heifetz’s artistry as he was growing up in Canada. An early teacher was, he says, ‘kind of Heifetz fan №1’, having heard him live several times in New York in the 1950s. ‘Quite often my lesson would be the last in the day on a Monday and afterwards my we’d go from the music school over to his house and listen to these recordings.’ Ehnes remembers being in his late teens when RCA released a major retrospective Heifetz box set. ‘My manager — half as a prize and half for career research, I think — bought me the entire set for Christmas. So anything that I didn’t know before that, I then got to know.’

This was before everything was available at the click of the mouse or the swipe of a screen, and to hear the earlier recordings, not widely released at the time, was a revelation for the violinist. Heifetz, born in 1901, had after all first gone into the studio in the early days of recording, becoming as a teenager a star artist of the young RCA company. ‘That box set included not just the stereo recordings from late in his career, but all of the earlier recordings,’ Ehnes recalls. ‘One can make the argument that he was really in his prime in those pre-stereo days.’

It’s one of these early recordings that is Ehnes’s first choice: Paganini’s fearsome Moto Perpetuo, recorded a century ago in 1918. ‘Most of us remember that feeling of being 18 and being on top of the world,’ he tells us, ‘and here Heifetz really was on top of the world. He’d come to America and created this sensation with these recitals in New York and went into the RCA studios in New Jersey and recorded a lot of these little pieces over a couple of months.

‘With the Moto perpetuo what amuses me is that he’s so consistently just a little bit ahead of the piano; he’s like a dog that’s straining at the leash the entire time. But it’s so immaculately played, so I shouldn’t say straining: that makes it sound like effort. He’s pushing the tempo; he’s just on the verge of running away with it at all times and that gives it this incredible excitement. Even just listening to the piece you feel as though you can hardly take a breath.

The next choice takes us forward some three decades to Heifetz’s recording of an arrangement of a piano piece: the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine, composed between 1903–5. This recording, made in 1947, is one that Ehnes says shows a different side of Heifetz as a musician.I often play [it] to people who only know Heifetz from those later stereo recordings, where things are miked very close, and where there’s an intensity and a beauty of the sound, but also a certain amount of grit and gristle. It’s a real glimpse into the incredible refinement and beauty of Heifetz’s playing. I’ve always found it really touching and beautiful.’

• Playlist – James Ehnes: my Jascha Heifetz top five

Ehnes was just 12 or 13 when he discovered the next recording on his list: of Brahms’s Violin Sonata №3, with the pianist William Kapell. ‘It became sort of obsessions of mine,’ he says of the 1950 performance, ‘as did the piece.’ And what’s so special about it? ‘Heifetz’s playing is so distinctive and so individual. Sometimes I fear that to young people today it might seem at times kind of dated, but once you really start listening to this recording, you hear it has such an intense line throughout. It makes the sonata seem short, because the direction is so strong and so continuous.’

‘For a lot of violinists of my generation,’ says Ehnes of his next choice, ‘this is maybe the most iconic Heifetz recording.’ It’s the violinist’s second RCA recording of a work, the Scottish Fantasy, by a composer, Max Bruch, who usually finds himself categorised as a one-hit wonder. ‘It’s one that was released on CD quite early,’ recalls Ehnes. ‘I remember going to summer camp in the late ’80s and everybody there had this recording. I think because we were all students we were all studying the G minor Concerto, and at the time the CD contained the concerto, the Scottish Fantasy and Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5.

‘At that time I remember somebody saying that every single note on this recording Heifetz played was better than any note he’d ever play in his whole life. The point was that every note is played with such single-minded focus. I admire that so much about Heifetz, about how he just seems to care so much. Nothing was ever glossed over. He was the reason we listened to this piece. Lots of violinists played and popularised the G minor Concerto; but, if it weren’t for Heifetz, would anybody even play the Scottish Fantasy?

Ehnes’s makes his final official choice, of Heifetz’s 1963 recording of Glazunov’s Violin Concerto, for similar reasons. ‘I think the Glazunov is a wonderful concerto and I love to play it; I love to listen to it. But without Heifetz, would anybody play that piece in concert? And when was the last time you heard any Glazunov? Basically that violin concerto has become among the only standard pieces in the repertoire by Glazunov because of Heifetz.’ It’s a work, too, Ehnes notes, that takes Heifetz back to his roots. Before leaving Russia he was taught by the legendary Leopold Auer, the original dedicatee of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (which Auer famously declared unplayable) as well as of Glazunov’s 1904 work — ‘This was for Heifetz modern music, and his recording: once you start it you just can’t stop.’

With his five official choices exhausted, I ask what didn’t make the cut. There’s a sigh and an intake of breath: making the selection was clearly no easy task. Then come the answers. There’s the 1930s recording of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto: ‘ I remember when I discovered that, becoming completely obsessed with the piece: I think that’s the best compliment to the player, when a recording makes you fall in love with the piece.’ There’s the Schubert Quintet, for which Heifetz in joined by the likes of William Primrose and Gregor Piatagorsky: ‘it’s extremely fast and it’s not terribly well together,’ says Ehnes of the 1961 recording, ‘but it’s absolutely beautiful, and I mean that’s what it’s about, right?

Then comes the 1957 recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. ‘His iconic recordings of the big pieces: they’re wonderful, they’re fantastic,’ Ehnes says. ‘But for me they’re not ones I return to that often, becuase I just have very different ideas about the music myself. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t love them for what they are. Or even his recordings of solo Bach. I don’t play Bach that way, I don’t suggest anyone else play Bach that way, but it’s incredible, and the Chaconne [from the Second Partita] in particular. Anyone who loves Bach, any serious music-lover — and certainly any serious violinst — owes it to themselves to listen to Heifetz play Bach!’

Ehnes’s own newest recording sees him switching from violin to viola for William Walton’s early concerto for the instrument, so I finish by asking him about Heifetz’s recordings of that composer. There’s another sharp intake of breath. ‘I totally should have included Heifetz’s recording of the Walton violin concerto! I had a cassette of his recordings of the Elgar and Walton. He recorded the Walton twice, and the one that I grew up with is the one with Walton himself conducting. That playing is so exciting and the piece is so wonderful.’

‘There’s a story,’ he continues, ‘supposedly true, that Walton was concerned when he was writing the concerto for Heifetz that it would be difficult enough for him. Heifetz’s reputation was of course as the supreme virtuoso, so as he was writing the piece Walton kept on trying to make it more and more difficult. And the piece has ended up being one of the most ferociously, horrendously difficult pieces ever. But what a great compliment it is to Heifetz.’ He pauses, then laughs, ‘even if I wonder if there was a part of him that didn’t really appreciate it!’

You can listen to James Ehnes play Walton’s Viola Concerto on IDAGIO now and find his Heifetz Playlist here.

Hugo Shirley · Published
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