SATURDAY, MAY 14, 2011
The Heifetz Syndrome
Joshua Heifetz is the name of perhaps the most famous violinist of all time, who, in his lifetime, recorded virtually every major work written for violin. Further, Joshua Heifetz had, and frankly still has, the reputation of being a cold player, a master technition, a perfectionist, but a cold musician. Quite simply, that’s wrong, very wrong!
I once heard a concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Joshua Heifetz playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in 1955 when I was 17 years old and indeed it was perfect. Because it was perfect and because the chronic indoctrination and chatter of that time, I accepted that it must have been a cold performance even though I was very moved by it; I was young and too easily accepting of what I was told.
About ten years later I listened to a Heifetz recording of the Tzigane by Ravel, a virtuoso piece with strong Hungarian, French and Gypsy flavours. Of course, the playing was perfect but it was also passionate, fiery and with enormous rhythmic energy. Recently, in preparation for this article, I listened to many other recordings of the Ravel Tzigane, which although great, frankly, did not compare to Heifetz recording. That Heifetz was cold could not have further from the truth, Heifetz was a was a warm, expressive and passionate musician. Sadly, the technical perfection that was part of Heifetz, the complete musician, served to distract from his extraordinary musicality.
Recently, just by chance, I uncovered an old live recording, probably a radio recording, hidden away in an unlikely cyber-corner of my computer, of Mahler’s 6th Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado that I believe was made in 1972. It was an absolutely superb performance, but one of the most outstanding aspects of it was the extraordinary horn playing of the solo horn player Henry Sigismonte; it was sensitive, and heroic, powerful and delicate. It was also perfect!
Now it’s time for an uncomfortable true confession; at the time I thought it was cold playing.
As well as being the solo horn player of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Henry Sigismonte, who sadly passed away in 1989 at the early age of 53, was one of the main horn players in the Hollywood studios; probably everyone has heard Henry in films, television, recordings and most likely in advertisements. Perfection was a required quality of those who were successful in the Hollywood studios and Henry was certainly both a successful and a perfect player. Why, how, I could have allowed myself to not hear his abundant beauty and artistry? I was experienced enough in 1973 to not be confused by the “Heifetz Syndrome”.
Composer Gunther Schuller, tells the story: Once while driving over the Austrian Alps, he listened to the Vienna Philharmonic playing a profound and beautiful performance of the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony. As the story goes it had all the magic and beauty of that pastoral countryside. Several years later, while driving back to New York City on the New Jersey Turnpike, he was listening to a performance of the same symphony but this time it was a poor performance that had absolutely none if the sonic imagery of the one he remembered in Austria. It was the same recording!
Beauty is, certainly, in the eyes (or ears) of the beholder but in music it is the responsibility the listener to keep our vision as clear as possible; it's tragic if a bad day or a bad road trip can changes our perceptions to the degree of missing greatness.