Music: Heifetz, Mozart and Joplin
To the Editor:
Bruce Kovner’s “Heifetz the Virtuoso” [August] is a pedestrian defense of an artist who needs no defenders, The attacks of Virgil Thomson and Alan Rich hark back to the naive era when critics clamored for attention by rapping the top banana; such cheap-shot artists naturally seize on Heifetz’s penchant for encore trifles, which he would have had to play even had he loathed them (one could with as little justice measure Sibelius by Valse Triste) . Rich plays the buffoon by damning The Heifetz Collection, no doubt hoping to be Shakespeare’s Shaw. Mr. Kovner isn’t too much better when he trots out Heifetz’s suppression of his accompanists (old hat) while passing over the Hollywood character of his later career: gravitating from the phony tinsel of the Rozsa Concerto to the real tinsel of Gruenberg’s Concerto and Benjamin’s Romantic Fantasy. The affected jollity of the Heifetz-Piatigorsky concerts has also cheapened his image, obscuring the fact that he illuminates the Elgar Concerto with flashes of lightning instead of the usual Edwardian gaslight. Mr. Kovner’s view that Heifetz is at his “least convincing in chamber works” is gainsaid by his glorious wartime collaboration with Rubinstein, Primrose, and Feuermann—the Brahms Op. 8 Trio, Schubert’s B-flat Trio, Dohnanyi’s Serenade in C, the “Archduke” Trio, and Mozart’s Divertimento, K. 563. This last, in particular, is interpretative collaboration at its perihelion.
To the Editor:
Bruce Kovner’s splendid article . . . reminded me of a recording session I had the good fortune to attend in Boston in 1939 when Heifetz did the Brahms Concerto with the Boston Symphony and Serge Koussevitzky. Many members of the orchestra said it was the most grueling contest between two strong-minded personalities that they had ever seen. Time after time, Heifetz would quit in the middle of recording a side, maintaining that he was not happy about this, that, or the other thing. Koussevitzky, a slow boiler, was nearing the breaking point. Charles O’Connell, Victor’s director, was fearing both the end result and the steadily rising cost as time went on. Finally, Koussevitzky leveled a blast at Heifetz with the words “Nozzing is pairfect!” This from a man who was at the time the most notable exponent of orchestral perfection.
They went back to the beginning and finally completed the album that was issued as Victor M-581, probably the finest concerto recording Heifetz ever did. O’Connell remarked later: “For once he read the music, not the notes.”
To the Editor:
. . . The article by Bruce Kovner left me somewhat puzzled. . . . Mr. Kovner quotes several music critics who belittle Heifetz’s interpretations in some of his concert recordings. . . . Other statements of Mr. Kovner’s, like calling Heifetz’s musicianship “misguided,” or that “Heifetz’s playing more than occasionally proves disappointing, inconsistent, or just bad,” are inappropriate to a performer of Heifetz’s caliber.
. . . I would like to remind your readers that when George Bernard Shaw heard Heifetz for the first time, he wrote next morning in the London paper where he was the music critic: “Jascha, please make one mistake, so the gods may sleep.” . . .
As a violinist of the Paris Conservatory and past member of the Paris Lamoureux Symphony, I had the honor of accompanying Heifetz in his concerts. The reverence, excitement, and adulation the orchestra musicians accorded Heifetz were not matched by those given to any other great performers.
After one of his concerts in Paris Fritz Kreisler was asked by music critic René Bizet why he did not play as well as usual that night. Kreisler replied: “Mon cher ami, I travel all over the world; I see statues and monuments erected to poets, virtuosi, and composers; I have yet to come across a monument erected to a critic.”
. . . The aura which Heifetz created will live with us forever, and, as in his lifetime, thousands of young violinists will continue to dream of becoming a Jascha.
Bruce Kovner writes:
I think David Wilson chooses an easy but intellectually uninteresting explanation when he ascribes the existence of controversy over Heifetz’s playing style to envy and attention-hunting. It seems implausible to me that the many critics who have, at one time or another, voiced doubts about the appropriateness or success of Heifetz’s style (including not only Thomson and Rich, but B. H. Haggin, C. G. Burke, and others) are all playing the buffoon rather than expressing genuine differences of opinion. And aside from the critics, it is clear that many performing musicians and others in the musical public do not find Heifetz’s playing to their taste. I think these views reflect a difference in musical values that is worth discussing. I did not try, as Mr. Wilson seems to believe, to defend Heifetz against all comers, for I was aware that my argument would please neither his admirers nor his critics. Instead, I tried to identify and describe a few elements in Heifetz’s performing style which may account for the disagreements and which, perhaps, help to explain the success or failure of his interpretations.
I agree with Mr. Wilson that the Rubinstein, Primrose, Feuermann recordings are superb examples of chamber playing, and I would add to that list the Mendelssohn Trio, recorded in 1950 with Rubinstein and Piatigorsky (RCA LM-1119). But I question whether that contradicts the point that Heifetz’s playing style has proved better suited to the large-scale displays of the concerto literature than to chamber music. These performances are exceptions which stand out in contrast to the many mediocre chamber recordings Heifetz has issued before and since. It appears that the exaggeration and excessive assertiveness typical of his chamber playing is absent only in recordings with artists of authority comparable to his own—particularly Feuermann and Rubinstein. (Morton Blender makes a similar point, I think, about the salutary effect of Koussevitzky’s personality on Heifetz’s recording of the Brahms Concerto.) If this is true, Heifetz’s predilection for weak accompanists and co-players is more relevant to the discussion of his interpretative limitations than Mr. Wilson would have us believe.
To the Editor:
. . . I would like to clarify Jerome Shipman’s statement [Letters from Readers, July, in a discussion of Bruce Kovner's “The Ragtime Revival,” March] that I “greeted the Deutsche Grammophon recording of Treemonisha in terms that are usually reserved, at the very least, for The Magic Flute.”
I did, in fact, mention Mozart’s opera, but only to point out that, like Joplin’s, it has a lousy libretto. Joplin’s libretto, the review said, “is not noticeably worse than what Schickaneder wrote for Mozart or Piave for Verdi.” I did say that the music “is always expert and often touched with genius,” and that this was a very commendable effort for a first opera.
A more clearly stated judgment of Treemonisha‘s musical quality in comparison to other operas was given in my original review of the stage production: “When he is classical, Joplin writes on the level, approximately, of Flotow’s Martha, which is a very fine level; when he lets some of the flavor of the spirituals or a dance rhythm into his music, he is doing something nobody else has done so well.”
I’ll stick by that, though it was written in the heat of the moment, for a tight deadline, ten months ago. But it’s a far cry from what I would write about The Magic Flute.
Washington, D. C.