The Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts were a series of chamber-music programs, beginning in 1961, devised by violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, both legends in their own time, who were also good friends living in Los Angeles. Each concert offered not only violin-cello duos but various combinations with pianists and/or other string players, plus occasionally a chamber orchestra to accompany one or both of them in a concerto or shorter work. Some of the concerts were offered in San Francisco and New York as well as L.A., and RCA recorded many of the works in its Hollywood studio. These were released on LP between 1964 and 1969, with a few additional items from the vaults issued in 1976-77 on other labels (one LP on Columbia Masterworks, one Vox Cum Laude), in 1995 for the RCA Red Seal Heifetz Collection, and finally in 2010 for Sony.
Now Sony has brought together all of these recordings, along with several earlier Heifetz-Piatigorsky pairings, in a richly enjoyable box set. The earlier works are three piano trios (Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn No. 1) with Arthur Rubenstein from 1951; the five Beethoven String Trios (including the Serenade, Op. 8) plus some Bach and Schubert with William Primrose and the Kodaly Duo; and the Brahms Double Concerto with Alfred Wallenstein conducting a pickup orchestra (released in RCA's Soria Series, 1961). The Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts "proper" feature either Jacob Lateiner or Leonard Pennario on piano, Israel Baker (concertmaster of the L.A. Philharmonic among many other distinguished positions) whenever a second violin is called for, and in most cases the equally distinguished Gabor Rejto as second cello. For viola Primrose often joined them, along with the superb Virginia Majewski (she plays the viola d'amour solos in Bernard Herrmann's score for On Dangerous Ground) and, from outside the L.A. area, the great Joseph de Pasquale.
The collection is one of Sony's Original Covers series, which means that each CD is enclosed in a cardboard replica of the original LP sleeve, front and back. There is more music per CD than in a number of other Original Covers sets: i.e., while a couple of discs have only about 30 minutes of music, the majority range from 40 to 55 minutes and the last two (originating as CDs) have an hour's worth. And there is no duplication of material, though we do have two different performances of the beloved Dvorak Piano Quintet in A, recorded only eight months apart in 1964, the first with Primrose and the second with de Pasquale. Someone must know why the Primrose version was left in the vaults in favor of releasing the de Pasquale, but I have not found any information; when I played the two recordings back to back (admittedly, without a score for close scrutiny) I did not hear any strong difference in sound quality or interpretation, except that the de Pasquale is marginally faster in the Scherzo and Finale. The booklet article by father-and-son Heifetz biographers John and John Anthony Maltese is fine but frustratingly short (their much longer essay for the bigger Heifetz set is rich in anecdotes), but we do get the recording details for each LP.
I won't attempt to comment on every performance, but can
single out what for me are some of the highlights of the set. Perhaps it should
be said overall that despite the very distinctive musical personalities of both
Heifetz and Piatigorsky, in chamber music both were utterly dedicated to the
ensemble: there are no showoff egos on display here. To be sure, in the Brahms
Double Concerto, starting with its opening cadenzas, there is no doubt that we
are hearing giants of the podium stretching their sinews; but dialogue and unity
are the essence of their chamber performances.
The three trios with Arthur Rubenstein are standouts, with
very acceptable 1951 mono sound. The Ravel is thoughtful yet compelling,
brilliant and tender, a real conversation between the three players. The
Tchaikovsky captures especially well the manic-depressive elements of the
variations that form the second (i.e., final) movement, with splendid virtuosity
in the more hectic moments.
It is a pleasure to have all of the opus-numbered string trios
of Beethoven, with Primrose, though the five of them are scatted over four discs
in the present set, and three of them (from 1957) are mono, while Op. 9, No. 2
and the Serenade are stereo (1960). Though the latter have better sound with
their "widescreen" perspective and more vivid presence, they struck me as a
little disappointingly subdued compared to the ‘57s.
Indeed, I wouldn't want to claim that every recording here
is an absolute classic. The Franck Quintet, for example, is not as passionately
executed as I would have liked, perhaps because Leonard Pennario's pianism is
not as dynamic as I imagine Rubenstein's would have been. But there are many
exciting performances on these discs. Take, for example, their Brahms Second
Sextet, with Baker, Primrose, Majewski and Rejto: the intensity, the variety of
string colorings, the sharp accuracy of ensemble are tremendous, and the way
they launch into the much faster triple-time Trio of the Scherzo is
electrifying. All of this can be said as well about the performance of another
string sextet (with largely different personnel), Tchaikovsky's Souvenir
de Florence. It's perhaps less taut but notably more passionate
than the recent Emerson Quartet (Plus) performance on Sony—though sadly
inferior in recorded sound.
Other outstanding performances in the set include both the
Mozart string quintets with Baker, Primrose and Majewski. The G minor's
opening Allegro is gripping from the first bar in its urgency and seamless flow,
and the same applies to the more genial but hardly "lightweight" C major.
The Brahms Second String Quintet is richly engaging as well, as is the Arensky
There are some surprising and very welcome excursions outside the standard chamber music repertory on these discs: for example, the String Trio by Jean Français, the Piano Trio by Joaquin Turina, and the Double Quartet by Ludwig (Louis) Spohr. The Français is, as one might expect from this composer, playful, effervescent, elegant — and brilliantly executed. The Turina begins with almost expressionistic intensity, but continues in a conservative-modern style, perhaps more French than Spanish in its inflections, and very worth hearing. As for the 1823 Spohr Double Quartet (the first of four such works the German composer wrote during his years in Kessel). I can't say it's a particularly gripping work, but it's quite pleasant and graceful, in a performance as warm and assured as you're ever likely to hear.
Other highlights of the set are the duets just for Heifetz and Piatigorsky: by Handel (arranged by the Norwegian Johan Halvorsen, from a keyboard work), Boccherini, Gliere, Kodaly, Martinu, Toch and Stravinsky. For all the performances of the 20th-century items the first word that comes to mind is "committed": the duo dig into each work with all the authority and momentum they give to Mendelssohn and Brahms. I especially like the Ernst Toch Divertimento, a short three-movement work from 1926, long before the Austrian-Jewish composer fled the Nazis and settled in L.A., where as a professor at USC (his most famous pupil was Andre Previn) he must have known fellow-instructors Heifetz and Piatigorsky. The Divertimento reminds me of Paul Hindemith pieces written around the same time, with less spiky wit but equally edgy and intense in the fast outer movements, somber in the slow movement. The contemporaneous BohuslavMartinu Duo (1927, in two movements, slow--fast) is another short, serious work played with fierce involvement, while the lengthier Kodaly Duo of 1914 is a substantial composition with considerable complexity and dramatic flair, permeated by the composer's characteristic Hungarian flavor, not least in the cadenzas of the middle movement. In a completely different vein is the Suite Italienne, Heifetz and Piatigorsky's own arrangement of music Stravinsky arranged from his 1920 ballet Pulcinella for either violin/piano or (with Piatigorsky's collaboration in 1933) cello/piano. The duo seem to be enjoying themselves especially in the "Aria," with its ponticello and other effects, and in the tricky rhythms of the suite's final bars.
The Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts offered a number of
performances with chamber orchestra. (No further identification or conductor is
given in either the LPs or the set's booklet. Presumably Heifetz or the
concertmaster led the ensembles.) The set includes double concertos by Vivaldi
and MiklosRozsa, the Mozart "Turkish" for Heifetz and a Haydn Divertimento
for Piatigorsky. Heifetz recorded the Mozart twice before (Barbirolli/LPO 1934,
Sargent/LSO 1951), and I must leave it to others to make comparisons with this
stereo version, which to my ears emphasizes the more gentle, lyrical elements of
the concerto, though with no lack of flair in the "Turkish" passages of the
finale. As for Rozsa's Theme and Variations,
this was planned as the middle movement of a SinfoniaConcertante
that Rozsa (who had already written a violin concerto for Heifetz) was composing
for the duo: he arranged a chamber version for oboes, horns and strings so that
it could be premiered at a Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concert in 1963 and later
recorded. (The duo never did play the complete work, which was premiered by
Victor Aitay/Frank Miller/Jean Martinon/Chicago Symphony.) The Theme
and Variations, expanding from a tune in a Hungarian folk idiom, is a
haunting work, one of Rozsa's most memorable scores; it goes without saying
that the performance is authoritative, from the opening theme for cello alone to
its final recollection in the violin high register.
As for the Brahms Double Concerto, aficionados will debate the merits of this performance vs. Heifetz/Feuermann/Ormandy/Philadelphia (1939) or Milstein/Piatigorsky/Reiner/Robin Hood Dell [Philadelphia] (1951). Speaking broadly and briefly, I will just say that it's a pleasure to hear this pairing of the two great artists, but that for me, at least, the performance doesn't take flight the way that the very greatest recordings do (Oistrakh/Rostropovich/Szell/Cleveland, to name just one).
The sound on these remastered discs is variable, mostly in regard to capturing Heifetz's distinctive sound. By all accounts it had a steely edge tempered with warmth, but in a number of these performances (e.g., both Dvorak Quintet recordings) the violin sound can be harsh, though tamable by adjustments to your system. There doesn't seem to be any consistent pattern: similar music, such as piano trios, recorded or released a few months apart may display a burnished or a more unflattering sound for Heifetz. (The sound is the least edgy in the concerted works.) Stereo separation is variable too, and I had no sense of a larger space surrounding the players. But the mono recordings (the first four discs) are perfectly respectable, and most of the stereo ones realistically capture the string and piano timbres.
Added 3/9/2014: Since this review was published, I've learned the reason why RCA recorded the Dvorak Quintet twice within eight months, with different violists. According to an article by Jon M. Samuels in the mini-book accompanying Sony’s 103-CD set of the complete Heifetz recordings, the sessions in March 1964 with William Primrose (who was nearing the end of his career) had "faulty intonation and missed cues," leading to a re-recording of the Quintet with Joseph de Pasquale in November. Samuels, a leading expert on the recordings of Jascha Heifetz, worked on the sessions tapes, and with "careful editing of the originals," Sony was able to release the Primrose version for the complete Heifetz set in 2011. Without close study with a score, I will venture to say that Samuels did an excellent job, leaving us with two worthy versions of the Quintet to compare.
Sound Quality: to
Nos. 3, 4, 9 (w/ William Primrose, viola)
Trios No. 1, in E-flat major, Op. 1 No. 1 (w/ Jacob Lateiner, piano) and No. 6
in E-Flat major, Op. 70/2 (Pennario); String Trios: Op. 3, Op. 9/1-3, Serenade,
Op. 8 (Primrose)
for Violin and Cello in D major
Concerto (w/ Alfred Wallenstein conducting the RCA Symphony Orchestra); Piano
Quartet No. 3 in C minor (Lateiner; Sanford Schonbach, viola); Piano Trio No. 2
in C major (Pennario); String Quintet No. 2 in G major (Israel Baker, violin;
Paul Rosenthal, Milton Thomas, violas); String Sextet No. 2 in G major (Baker;
Primrose, Virginia Majewski, violas; Gabor Rejto, cello)
Quintet No. 2 in A major (March 1964: Lateiner, Baker, Primrose; November 1964:
Lateiner, Baker, Joseph de Pasquale, viola); Piano Trios Nos. 3 (Pennario) and
4, "Dumky" (Lateiner)
Trio (de Pasquale)
Divertimento for Cello and Orchestra (w/. chamber orchestra)
Passacaglia in G minor (arr. Halvorsen)
Quintet (Pennario, Baker, Primrose)
Kodaly: Duo for
Violin and Cello
Martinu: Duo for
Violin and Cello No. 1
for Strings (Baker, Arnold Belnick, Joseph Stepansky, violins; Majewski,
Primrose; Rejto); Piano Trio No. 1(Arthur Rubenstein, piano); Piano Trio No. 2 (Pennario)
Quintets No. 3 in C major, K.515, and 4, in G minor, K. 516 (Baker, Primrose,
Majewski); Concerto No. 5 for Violin in A major, "Turkish," K. 219 (chamber
Ravel: Piano Trio
and Variations (chamber orchestra)
Trio No. 2 in C major (Pennario); String Quintet (Baker, Primrose, Rejto);
String Trio in B-flat major D.581 (Primrose)
String Quartet in D minor (Baker; Pierre Amoyal, Rosenthal, violins; Thomas,
Allan Harshman, violas; Laurence Lesser, cello)
Italienne (arr. Heifetz and Piatigorsky)
Trio (Rubenstein); Souvenir de Florence
(Baker, Thomas, Rosenthal, Lesser)
Turina: Piano Trio
No. 1 (Pennario)
Vivaldi: Concerto for Violin, Cello, Strings and Continuo, RV 547 (Malcolm Hamilton, harpsichord, and chamber orchestra)
violin, and Gergor Piatigorsky, cello