Site review by ramesh June 12, 2007
|SACD comparisons : Bach BWV 1043-- Hilary Hahn, LA Chamber Orch/ Kahane DGG 474639
Brahms Op. 102 -- Fischer, Müller-Schott, Netherlands Philharmonic/ Kreizberg PentaTone 5186066
BMG continues their release of the Heifetz stereo discography with three 'Double' concertos. The Bach was recorded in London in 1961, with members of the LSO under another name for contractual reasons. Although the latest of these recordings, it is only preserved in two-track. The Mozart recorded in 1956 and the Brahms in 1960 are both in three-track.
The Bach concerto in D minor has Friedman, a Heifetz pupil, as second violin. Friedman also made fine recordings of the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos for RCA. The orchestra in the Bach sounds rather larger and plummier than we are used to nowadays, and has a jumbo sized harpsichord continuo. The track timings for the Heifetz performance are 3:45, 6:04 and 4:46. The timings for the same concerto with Hilary Hahn on the DGG SACD are 3:21, 6:50 and 4:14, and the timings of the famous 1978 Philips record with Grumiaux are 3:53, 6:40 and 4:56.
Hilary Hahn's performance sounds rushed in the outer movements, even though her SACD has garnered great critical praise. Listening to Heifetz and Friedman, it is striking to hear their composure, with beautifully turned phrasing, although Grumiaux gives nothing away in this department. Heifetz's technical skill means that his playing never sounds flustered. He simply seems to have more time up his bowing arm. Indeed, the orchestral tutti passages seem to be at a faster clip than the solo playing, even though this is not the case.
For those who don't know it, the slow movement of the D minor is one of the most lyrically sublime movements in all of baroque music, a Wagnerian 'unending melody' distilled into two contrapuntal strands. One can see that Heifetz's interpretation is considerably faster for a movement marked 'largo ma non tanto'. Again, this greatest ever technician of the violin brings to bear his unsurpassed skill of phrasing at speed. It never sounds rushed. The astonishing tone production, with Heifetz's characteristic high tensile vibrato, could have sounded cloying and self indulgent [ rather like Rostropovich's Dvorak cello concerto with Giulini ] at slower speeds, so this faster clip is aesthetically inspired. For me, this performance has the best slow movement of the D minor I've come across, and it justifies the price of the entire disc. I would give it six stars out of five. For balance, I have to add that many British critics are not enamoured of this performance, which I believe has to do with an anti-Heifetz reaction after his death.
The Mozart Sinfonia Concertante is a different kettle of fish. Heifetz is joined by the viola virtuoso William Primrose. These two soloists are well matched tonally, with similar approaches to phrasing. Again, the orchestra as recorded sounds bigger than expected nowadays, and there is what appears to be some airconditioning noise on the tape. However, the closely recorded and dry orchestra lacks charm, with some of the tuttis sounding harsh and militant. The outer movements are too fast, and the end result is two soloists giving almost matchless technical renditions of a misconceived, overly virtuosic interpretation.
The Brahms Double again sets steeplechase speeds. Its movement timings are 14:46, 6:49 and 7:43. Compare this to the new PentaTone SACD at 16:05, 7:36 and 8:16, and the famous Oistrakh-Rostropovich-Szell-Cleveland Orchestra of 16:50, 7:50 and 8:48! The particular, concerto grosso-like structure of the works seems to pose some difficulty for conductors. Although there have been many successful solo pairings of the work on record, starting with Thibaud and Casals, I can only think of two thoroughly convincing orchestral accompaniments : Szell for Rostropovich and Oistrakh, and Karajan for Mutter and Meneses. It's hard to say exactly why, unless one listens to either of these two performances. Wallenstein seems to be conducting the romantic music equivalent of supermarket unlabelled discount porridge, which admittedly does intermittently reach effectiveness in the latter half of the first movement, before collapsing back into pudding. However, Wallenstein is too deferential to his soloists, who tend to accelerate when the going gets exciting. The wonder is that even though the performance could have turned into a disappointment, the Heifetz-Piatigorsky Brahms 'Double' turns out to be better than the sum of its parts. The lack of charm in the Brahms is as irrelevant as it is a major lacuna for the nature of the Mozart. The rapid speeds elicit a classical rigour of line, the way Heifetz's SACD performance of the Brahms violin concerto is super classical, especially with a far more convincing Reiner leading the Chicago Symphony. To summarise the Heifetz-Piatigorsky 'Double' : this is Brahms without the autumnal aftershave.
Comparisons to the PentaTone Brahms 'Double' clearly point to the superiority of the modern recording, although the basic violin and cello tone of the BMG SACD is slightly better than the EMI CD of Oistrakh et al. In the PentaTone SACD, one can for the first time hear all of the violin and cello solo parts, no matter how softly they are being played. This I haven't found previously on LP, CD, or for that matter in the concert hall except when sitting in the very front stalls. When the soloists start to play more softly, one can follow the two contrapuntal lines all the way down the dynamic levels, each instrument still distinct, with the orchestra as a cushion of accurately focussed sound behind them. The Oistrakh-Rostropovich has the most 'battleship' sonority of all the recorded accounts I've come across. [ And it sounds far better in the EMI-Japan 2004 rerelease : TOCE-13077. The UK and US CD transfers are subfusc rubbish compared to this.] Because of the powerful tone in all departments, the EMI version sounds more urgent, when actually the PentaTone performance is swifter in all three movements. Although if PentaTone had managed to record with, say, the Concertgebouw orchestra, a more powerful sonority would have resulted, the leaner sounding Netherlands Philharmonic doesn't place the interpretation at a disadvantage. This is due to the lyrical and mellow performances of the young soloists, which gel with the orchestral tone on offer. If Fischer and Müller-Schott had attempted to play with the borderline manic intensity of Heifetz, Piatigorsky, Oistrakh or Rostropovich, there could've been a miscasting. The solo playing is better integrated with the orchestra than on the BMG SACD, the general impression being an interpretation which is classically balanced, rather than a romantic wallow. A fine interpretation, quite at the opposite pole to the Oistrakh-Rostropovich-Szell.