Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Naxos 8.107001 - Set of 7 individual CDs in a cardboard presentation case:
 £31.50  AmazonUK £29.99  AmazonUS

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61
Johannes BRAHMS
Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77
NBCSO/Toscanini, Boston SO/Koussevitzky
Naxos 8.110936 (rec. 1940,1939) [76.39]

Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35
Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
LPO/Barbirolli (Tchaikovsky, Wieniawski), LPO/Beecham
Naxos 8.110938 (rec. 1937, 1935, 1935) [78.58]

William WALTON
Violin Concerto in B minor (original version)
Edward ELGAR
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61
Cincinnati SO/Goossens, LSO/Sargent
Naxos 8.110939 (rec. 1941, 1949) [69.00]

Alexander GLAZUNOV
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 82
Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46
Johannes BRAHMS
Double Concerto for Violin and 'Cello in A minor, Op. 102
LPO/Barbirolli, RCA Victor O/Steinberg, Feuermann (Vc)/Philadelphia O/Ormandy
Naxos 8.110940 (rec. 1934, 1947, 1939) [74.58]

Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63
Violin Concerto, Op. 47
Boston SO/Koussevitzky, San Francisco SO/Monteux
Naxos 8.110942 (rec. 1937, 1945) [62.16]

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, K218
Violin Concerto No. 5 in A "Turkish", K219
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
LPO/Barbirolli (Mozart No. 5), RPO/Beecham
Naxos 8.110942 (rec. 1947, 1934, 1949) [73.27]

Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, Op. 31
Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, Op. 37
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso
Havanaise, Op. 83
Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20
"Carmen" Fantasy
LPO/Barbirolli, LSO/Sargent, LPO/Barbirolli, LSO/Barbirolli, LSO/Barbirolli, RCA Victor O/Voorhees
Naxos 8.110943 (rec. 1935, 1947, 1935, 1937, 1937, 1946) [76.53]

My old grandmother used to tell me, "Allus start as tha' means t' go on". Being "no'but a lad" at the time, I didn't "tek much gorm", as they say in my neck of the woods. But now I'm coming within spitting distance of how old my gran. was back then, I'm at long last starting to get the message. Not unreasonably, you might wonder why on earth I'm telling you this? Well, that's for me to know, and for you to figure out - unlike the matter in hand, where the onus is fairly and squarely on me to tell you what I think. So, methinks, I'd better get on with it, hadn't I?.

Let's get the nit-picking out of the way first. For all its grandiose intentions, this set is nothing more than seven previously-issued and separately available CDs bedded together in a cardboard slip-case, which in practical terms is (I hope) a convenient way of giving you a bit off for bulk purchase. I would have much preferred a nice compact presentation box and the discs in dinky little paper sleeves. Still, you can always ditch the slip case and stack the contents separately. The colour scheme, shades of orange on nearly-black brown, puts me in mind of those cheap and cheerful old RCA "Camden" LPs that were once bread-and-butter to young and impecunious collectors. Some folk may find that it looks cheap and nasty, but to my eyes (being a once-young, impecunious collector) it adds a certain period charm, even if it is the wrong period! The "contents" panel on the back of the box lists "CD1" to CD7", but if you want to use this to cross-reference to the individual CDs, I'm afraid that you'll have to stick on your own labels. The mistakes on this listing are limited to one transposition - the Glazunov and Wieniawski concerti seem to have got swapped between "CD2" and "CD4", although everything is present and correct on the CDs themselves (and the list above, I hope). The final consequence of the packaging is that instead of a single booklet you have the notes that come with each CD, and with seven all together, the bones of the Naxos "Lego brick" methodology of note-writing, even with the neat variations and dovetailing of Tully Potter, start to stick out through the flesh. Thus, for instance, I started to get a bit fed up of reading about Heifetz "having burst upon the scene in 1917 with a New York recital which is still talked about", while never discovering why!

To be fair, this will be an annoyance only while you are beavering through the set for the first time - thereafter, you may consider it convenient, and the notes themselves although fairly brief are well-written, informative and wide ranging. There's something about the music, something about Heifetz, something about his glittering array of "supporting casts", something about the history of the recordings, and (gratifyingly) some argument about the recording techniques and the value of reproducing these venerable old recordings on CD. To cap that, you'll also find full details of recording dates, venues, matrix numbers, and catalogue numbers of original issues. For the musicologically-minded, where appropriate you'll also find indicated the authorship of the cadenzas. On balance, and regardless of price, as a package this'll do very nicely thank you.

So, what about the content? Well, there's rather a lot of it! Eight hours, thirty-two minutes and eleven seconds to be precise - that's a generous average of about 73 minutes a disc. If these had been modern recordings, or at least ADD stereo jobs, it would have been in the running for a recommendation as "Everyman's Introduction to the Violin Concerto" - a whole pile of the finest and most popular mixed with a couple of relative rarities and a handful of virtuoso encores. But, they're not (ADD stereo, that is) - they were all recorded between 1934 and 1949, which puts rather a different slant on it.

The remastering was done by Mark Obert-Thorn (and yes - the liner notes do include a profile of him, seven times over!), who adopts a policy of minimum interference. What sets him apart from similar "minimalists" is that he doesn't use the "metals" from the industry's archives, but seeks out the "cleanest available" retail products. I must admit, though, that I remain unconvinced by the arguments as to why this should be "better". While we are told what he doesn't do (add reverberation, fancy equalisations, CEDAR-style vacuum-cleaning and what have you), it is not exactly spelt out what he actually does do to lift the recording out of the Model T and into the Mondeo, though it's a fair bet that it involves careful preparation of the original pressing, a very high-quality turntable, and (I'll bet a pound to a penny) real fibre needles!

Results? The CDs sound exactly like much-loved, very well cared for, and rarely played 78s (now, there's a surprise). To give you the general idea, even at its most intrusive the background hiss sounds no worse than you would get from a non-Dolby cassette (or at least it does to my ears - maybe someone with younger and sharper auditory organs might find a bit more). Granted, if this hiss were custard it'd be lumpy, but there are very, very few passages of "greater grot" or "grindier gravel". I found that I quickly adapted, both to the monaural image (whereas, let's not forget, once upon a time people were having trouble adapting to stereophonic images!) and to the background noise, so that it rarely got in the way of my enjoyment of the music. However, if you're the sort who gnashes his teeth in fury at the tiniest blemish, then perhaps you'd better stay well clear, or at least sample before you buy.

In fact, the hiss is at its most noticeable between movements and works, where Mr. Obert-Thorn opts to fade out and in. I also became aware of the slight but progressive improvement (reduction) in background noise in the more recent recordings - you can have hours of harmless fun and amuse your friends playing your own "radiocarbon dating" game, trying to guess the year of the recording from the background noise level! One other thing is remarkable. I remember, many moons ago, spending many "happy" hours of hard labour transcribing some 78s onto cassette for a Recorded Music Society presentation. Although I managed to join the sides up fairly smoothly as far as musical continuity was concerned, I obviously couldn't do anything about the discontinuity in the hiss spectrum due to the disparity in linear tracking speed between the end of one side and the start of the next. I was pleasantly surprised when, having listened to these records right through, I suddenly realised that I hadn't particularly noticed any joins, apart from a couple of places where I felt the tiniest hiccough in the musical continuity! So, bowing to the laws of physics, either it's down to my ageing ears, or Mr. Obert-Thorn has done a bit of crafty tweaking on the sly.

Mind you, if you're tolerant, the background noise won't be a problem. In any case, it's a funny thing, this "tolerance" of background noise. Back in the days of LP, I used to be utterly paranoid about the least little click or whoosh - I once returned a faulty LP of Delius to the shop, grumbling that "The Walk to the Paradise Garden seems to be paved with gravel". I used to dream of a Utopia where such intrusions would be forever banished. Then along came Utopia, in the form of CD. I learnt first-hand something of the fascination with sound that hi-fi fanatics are reputed to have - this business of listening to the sound quality rather than the music - except in my case I was entranced by the sounds that were conspicuous by their absence! But the really curious thing was this: as soon as I had CD, I found that my LP paranoia had dissolved - overnight, I had become tolerant of all those clicks and whooshes, just as (it then struck me) I had been all along with 78s. The LPs had joined the 78s as "historical documents", in which you not only tolerate, but actually savour the shortcomings as part and parcel of the experience of gazing in wonder through a window onto the past. My gran. also used to say, "There's nowt s' queer as folk."

Pressing onwards, let's consider the foreground - is it a tolerable signal, or just more noise? The soloist is always placed well forward, but not so much that he is overwhelmingly dominant (as was the case in the early, acoustic recording days). The perspective is very much "front row stalls", overall a very satisfactory balance that lets plenty of orchestral detail come through - I was pleasantly surprised to find that where I expected to hear an orchestral soloist, I could, while on several occasions I was overjoyed to hear the triangle, a minor miracle when you consider how many modern recordings, in the pursuit of "refinement" and "subtlety", render such details virtually inaudible to your average mortal. The big question regarding balance comes in the notorious Brahms Double Concerto: does the brightly penetrating violin shine out while the darker, more velvet-toned 'cello flounders in the murk? Brahms, bless him, took all the care in the world to give the 'cello a fighting chance but even then, in the concert hall, a violinist (whether by accident or design) can all too easily hog the limelight. On a recording, any attempt by the engineers to put a "selfish" violinist back in his place will result in an unnatural-sounding balance. On this recording, it sounds like the RCA engineer simply found the "right" place to put his microphone, and left Heifetz and Feuermann to weave a miracle (they duly obliged). The "minimalist" approach to the transfers does of course mean that the "plummy" bass typical of recordings of this vintage is faithfully reproduced. Because it "booms", i.e. increases in proportion to the overall sound-level, it's not something that you can ameliorate by a tweak of the tone controls (although a "loudness" switch, if your amplifier happens to have one, may by its very design be of some help). Another problem is the tendency to opacity in loud tuttis, which by and large can only be endured by the listener. Happily, for me at least, these were rarely a real problem on any of these recordings which, as examples of the listening experience of their age, must be counted as pretty good (I've certainly heard far worse).

But what about the performances? Hum! It's about here that the relevance of critical review starts to plummet. I don't mean that criticism isn't possible, but simply that this is a "historical document": if you want to hear the recorded legacy of an artist reputed to be the "greatest violinist of the Twentieth Century", you're hardly likely to be influenced by anybody else's opinion of his (or his accompanists') performances, are you? That's fair enough, but I suspect that the vast majority of folk will be like me, asking "OK, is it going to be worth my putting my hand into my pocket?" There'll probably even be some (other) Yorkshireman somewhere wondering why, if there's only one channel, they aren't selling the discs for half-price. That might be a good question, but I'm not the one to answer it! I should say at this point that I'm no "Heifetz aficionado", and in fact, I'm ashamed to admit, have very little prior experience of his work. You may think that disqualifies me as a commentator. I think it makes me relatively unprejudiced (on this matter, as they say, "the verdict is yours").

The first thing I noticed about Heifetz's playing is that he doesn't hang about. The suggestion that he tailored his tempi to fit in with the 78 r.p.m. disc side-length doesn't hold much water with me, because (I seem to recall) once electrical recording had been introduced, the techies had quickly sorted out the means of switching between record decks on the fly, to accommodate longer takes, and in any case Heifetz generally played these works even faster later on in life, when magnetic tape had effectively eliminated that stricture altogether. Tully Potter reports that Heifetz and Toscanini "breezed" through the Beethoven concerto, "rather neglecting its spiritual content". At the beginning of the same note, he also suggests that this work is "serenely classical". I get the feeling that "serene" is being equated to "slow", and certainly these days soloists seem to agonise at ever greater length over each individual note in their efforts to out-do the competition for the award of "Most Sensitive and Heartfelt Interpretation". My feeling is that Heifetz and Toscanini looked at the tempo markings, were well aware that this music is "classical" rather than "late Romantic", and treated it as such, embedding whatever "spirituality" they found in the music within that classical framework. Thus the opening drum beats, rather than coming across as some pre-Brucknerian mystical meandering, are a purposeful pulse more in tune with the Beethoven that we all know and love, while the divine second movement emerges as a properly fluid larghetto, rather than some contrived adagissimo molto espressivo e religioso. Most (expletive deleted!) refreshing. On the quick side the basic tempi might be, but there are only a couple of places in the entire set where the music seems even the least bit rushed. One of these is the finale of the Mendelssohn concerto, where allegro molto vivace - according to my dictionary meaning "jolly and very lively" - is taken to mean "like a bat out of hell". It fair took me by surprise, so, refusing to be panicked I listened again, and it sounded better - still hell-for-leather, but now I was starting to appreciate the elegance of the phrasing, so I expect that I'll get used to it. Not so, I fear, the gorgeous "gypsy dance tune" in the finale of the Wieniawski No. 2, which although it is beautifully articulated must be counted my one out-and-out disappointment - it is jettisoned at such a lick that I fear for the continued physical well-being of any gypsy foolhardy enough to actually try to dance to it.

The other thing I particularly noticed was that Heifetz's playing at first seemed a bit "scrappy", which surprised me a little, considering his position in the league table. This might be a result of the no-nonsense approach to tempo, or (much more likely) because I, like most people, am accustomed to the sound of today's violinists, who seem to have clinical impeccability of execution drilled into their brains at birth. Heifetz, on the other hand, strikes me as a "natural" - when he put his violin under his chin it became an extension of his larynx. His playing is full of "character", and probably the self-same "character" as would have been evident in his speech. Those no-nonsense tempi might appear a bit "driven", but within the chosen basic pulse his expression is wonderfully conversational, unforced and supple. "Driven" maybe, but "driven" with real feeling, so that all the tender moments, like the one near the end of the first movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto, are expressed with an eloquence that warms the cockles of the heart. "Felicitous" hardly begins to describe the effect. Tully Potter makes numerous references to Heifetz's tone, and the impact on it of different recording venues and techniques. My feeling is that we cannot be sure whether (say) one venue is "kinder", or whether it is "more flattering": with all the jiggery-pokery of recording and remastering between the original sound and our perception of it, not to mention the means we have of modifying the sound on playback, "tone" can hardly be considered an absolute. Sometimes it sounds richer, sometimes less rich. I have my opinion, and you'll have yours - what Heifetz "really" sounded like is something that we must each decide for ourselves.

The commendable presence of the orchestral sound provides a valuable bonus - it is fascinating, and almost worth the price of the discs for this alone, to listen "behind" Heifetz to that formidable array of orchestras and conductors. Barbirolli, for example, was a venerable "oldie" when I was a callow youth, drinking in my early experiences of live music at the Hallé's Bradford Subscription Concerts, given almost exclusively under his baton. On these recordings he is a fiery up-and-comer! There's also a special thrill in hearing how the likes of Koussevitsky, Beecham and Monteux in their prime got stuck into the job. Then there's Sargent, so often belittled by critics (and others), showing his not inconsiderable mettle in the Elgar concerto - this is one that you really must hear.

Time for the fabled "bottom line". I must inevitably return to the point that this is a historical document. You aren't going to buy this set because it's "better played" than X or "better recorded" than Y, but because you want to learn something about these great performers in their hey-day, and/or to gaze in wonder through that magical portal into the past. I must confess that at school I had no great fondness, euphemistically speaking, for history lessons. But these records make up one history lesson that (to my amazement) I enjoyed immensely, a real voyage of discovery that I will want to retrace repeatedly, and for far more than just educational purposes. On reflection, and all things considered, I am starting to feel inclined to say, "Sod the sound, sod the stereo - if you really want a bumper Everyman's Introduction to the Violin Concerto, superbly played by a master practitioner and some of the world's finest orchestras and conductors, for less than the price of a modest dinner for two, then grab a hold of this!" Even if you already have modern stereo recordings of the music, you will still find something extra-special in these golden oldies. So, get your hands in your pockets, it'll be money well spent!

Paul Serotsky

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