Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The NRR Project #42: Early Heifetz recordings

Acoustic recordings
Jascha Heifetz, violin
53 sides recorded between Nov. 9. 1917 and Dec. 19, 1924

What would it be like to be the best ever at something? The epitome, the paragon, the pattern of perfection? It is painful, wonderful? Both? Is the expression of genius-level talent inevitable?

Case in point -- Jascha Heifetz. Born in Lithuania in 1901, he was the son of a violin teacher who noted his responsiveness to his playing in the child’s infancy. Lessons began at age 2, and his status as a prodigy spread quickly. By 1911, he was giving outdoor concerts in Odessa that drew thousands.

The looming Russian Revolution prompted the Heifetzes to flee the hard way – to the East, across Siberia and the Pacific to America. Heifetz’s appearance at Carnegie Hall on October 25, 1917 electrified the musical world and led his lifetime recording relationship with Victor Records (later RCA).

The records in this selection were made over 16 sessions, all using the acoustic recording process. This literal analog method of reproduction was best for brass, all right for vocals, piano, and high-register strings – and deadly for many others without a crisp sound that cycled between 250 and 2500 Herz. Heifetz’s strength, speed, accuracy all come through loud and clear.

Heifetz’s preternatural technical skill meant that he could leap over the first and highest hurdle to instrumental mastery. (Yes, he practiced diligently nonetheless.) After a century of so of robust, flamboyant, and sentimental showmanship in violin soloists, Heifetz focused on eliminating all affectation – paring everything back to the notes on the page and how to express them as cleanly as possible. This led to accusations of robotic performances later in his career. However, it’s evident that he was merely locked into a laser-like intensity of focus that precluded excessive gestures.

The pieces recorded here are very much a part of the violin repertory of the time – concert pieces, many considered “light,” lyrical works by Sarasate, Paganini, transcriptions by Fritz Kreisler, the last of whom was the top-dog fiddler of the day. Heifetz subordinates himself to the needs of the piece he is playing rather than imposing a style. His dedication to clarity, clarity, clarity markedly narrowed the gap between the composers’ intents and the listeners’ ears.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: After You’ve Gone. 

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