Jascha Heifetz’s New York debut turned up the heat on violinists

The 16-year-old’s recital in 1917 had Mischa Elman remark, ‘It’s hot in here, isn’t it?’

There’s a great story told about the 1917 New York debut of then 16-year-old Vilnius-born violinist Jascha Heifetz. He had already stormed Russia and Europe, and had made a big impression at the highest level.

In 1912, at the age of 11, he had played at a private concert in the home of music critic Arthur Abell. The great Fritz Kreisler was there and accompanied the young violinist, playing the orchestral part of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto from memory. Kreisler was so impressed by what he heard that he spoke out for himself and other violinists. "We may as well break our fiddles across our knees," he said.

Heifetz’s first appearance at Carnegie Hall was a predictably high-stakes affair. The critics were ecstatic – “already his mastery of the violin is such that one can compare him only to the greatest virtuosi of the present and the past”; “to say that heifetz is a complete master of his instrument scarcely conveys the ease with which he accomplishes what has heretofore seemed superhuman”; “another great violinist has come out of russia”; “a modern miracle”; “he played yesterday with the maturity of a man of 40”.

Most of the great violinists living in the city seem to have been at the concert. The pianist Leopold Godowsky, who was a family friend of the Heifetzes, shared a box with the violinist Mischa Elman, who was 10 years older than Heifetz, had studied with the same teacher, Leopold Auer, and was the first great Russian violinist to make an impact in the US in the 20th century.


The longer the concert went on, the more uncomfortable Elman became. In order to hide his discomfiture he turned to Godowsky and said, “It’s hot in here, isn’t it?” Quick as a flash, Godowsky retorted, “No Mischa. Not for pianists.” Both Heifetz and Elman went on to have long and successful careers, Elman performing until 1967 (he died at home the night after a rehearsal), and Heifetz until 1972, 15 years before his death in 1987 at the age of 86. But for most of the century Heifetz remained the undisputed king, the player against whom other fiddlers would measure themselves.

Playing for himself

Before I ever heard any of Heifetz's discs I came across Elman on record, a second-hand copy of the Decca recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto he made in the 1950s with Georg Solti conducting. It was like an opening into another era, a more lax one in which performers took liberties that the later 20th century regarded as strictly off limits. Even at the time the recording was made, his approach was viewed as old-fashioned, and the partnership with Solti was not seen as successful. The pressured bite of the conductor's musical approach would have been much better suited to the high-tension discipline of a player such as Heifetz.

It was many years before I came across earlier recordings of Elman, made with more sympathetic musical partners and when his technique was in better shape. The Elman I encountered then had qualities I still find hard to describe. It’s often as if he’s just playing for himself, musing over the music, and happy to make spur-of-the-moment interpretative decisions that can lead to unpredictability and rhythmic waywardness. And, of course, there’s his tone, not just the sound itself, but the effortless, laid-back quality it conveys, as if the violin is being played without any stress or physical effort.

What's had me thinking about Elman these past few days is the recital given at the National Concert Hall last Thursday by Nikolaj Znaider, with Robert Kulek at the piano. The piano was lidless, and Kulek sat at right angles to the norm, his back facing the audience – a whole other topic for discussion, apart from the violin playing.

Znaider makes a sound that seems stressless in nature, unpressured and melting. Anyone on stage is likely to use a form of heightened declamation. But Znaider’s approach was the opposite of the bright, firmly projected manner most players prefer.

Honey-sweet approach

It would be hard to imagine a more gorgeously romantic, honey-sweet approach to a set of four Preludes that Dmitri Tsyganov arranged from the piano originals of Shostakovich’s Op 34, a more simply stated account of Beethoven’s Sonata in D, Op 12 No 1, a more intimately soft-spoken delivery of Brahms’s Sonata in G, Op 78, or a more delicately contoured and sometimes delectably nimble way with Prokofiev’s Sonata in D.

Yes, of course there were fireworks, too, but often treated almost nonchalantly rather than as a focus of display. The positioning of the piano, and especially the removal of the lid, created a kind of hollowing out, a defocusing of the tone. But those very qualities probably enabled Kulek to play out without masking the often fine tracery of the violin playing.

In the same week the Irish Chamber Orchestra under Jörg Widmann, at Christ Church Cathedral on Wednesday, went for big-boned impression-seeking in Beethoven (a performance of the Grosse Fuge with real grunt), Korngold (the rich-textured Symphonic Serenade), and Mendelssohn (a highly energised account of the ninth of the teenage String Symphonies), with Widmann's own Aria providing some contrasting filigree. And thrust and power were on offer from the magisterial and charming Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel with the RTÉ NSO under Gareth Jones. Yet it was the chilled-out Znaider who left the most lingering impression.