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The Performance Style of Jascha Heifetz
by Dario Sarlo
Published 2020
270pp. Paperback
ISBN: 9780367598075

This fascinating book first appeared in 2015, and I’m pleased to report that Routledge have now published a new edition in paperback at a much more affordable price. Having an avid interest in violin playing and recordings, Heifetz has always held a special place in my affections. His unique place in the history of violin playing is undisputed. Itzhak Perlman remarked that “Heifetz is the greatest violinist who ever lived”. Henry Roth in his book on Violin Virtuosos comments that his playing “represent(s) the closest thing to perfection in violin playing”, and Carl Flesch in his Memoires states that “Without doubt, he (Heifetz) represents a culmination in the contemporary development of our art”.

Sarlo sets out his stall in the opening pages. As composers have had the advantage of analytical study by such renowned names as Heinrich Schenker and Donald Tovey, so, too, with the ready accessibility of more than a century of recorded performances, “it is becoming ever more important to draw on this resource to further our understanding of performance style”. As a performing violinist, the author has long held the desire to delve into the recorded legacy and style of Jascha Heifetz. He’s been absorbed for over a decade with lectures, a film and a “co-editing translation” of a biography of the violinist’s early years in Russia. For the purpose of this study he focuses especially on Heifetz’s performances of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (BWV 1001-1006).

After a biographical portrait, Sarlo remarks that the documentary sources are limited in scope. Previous books written are more than two decades old, and no recent, updated biographical study has been undertaken. On a more positive note, as one of the most recorded violinists in history, much of the Heifetz discography is readily available, both live and studio. He was a meticulous collector of his concert programmes and correspondence, and there are 280 boxes (52 linear feet) of material housed in the Library of Congress, to which the author has had access.

Heifetz’s performance style is discussed, “Perfection” being the epithet that followed him around since his 1917 Carnegie Hall debut. A New York Times review of his recorded legacy in 1975 was titled “A Virtuoso of Frightening Perfection”. There’s discussion of the famous unsmiling, deadpan “Poker Face”. His lack of physical mannerisms and his tempered emotional restraint led many to regard him and his playing as cold.

For those who revel in statistics and tables, there are copious examples scattered throughout the text. For personal interest I'll single out "Heifetz performance events separated by year and by type from 1917-1974" - a comprehensive numerical listing documenting recitals, orchestral concerts, chamber music concerts, recording days and broadcasts. Another enumerates all 33 violin concertos featured in the artist's career. Sarlo discusses how Heifetz structured his programmes and how that evolved over the years in tune with changes of fashion.

Although Bach’s Solo Sonatas and Partitas accompanied Heifetz significantly throughout his career, Sarlo is rightly of the opinion that they have remained an under-acknowledged part of his discography. The focus of the book is predominantly on these works, especially the Prelude in E major, BWV 1006. Comparisons are made with the many recorded versions of this, performed on both period and modern instruments. Parts of the book become very complicated, detailed and dense, e.g. several STDEV (standard deviation) graphs comparing the Heifetz versions with others. Yet, through it all, we gain a window into performance practice over the last one hundred or so years. What emerges is how consistent Heifetz was as a performer. Sarlo sums it up concisely, posing the question: “What do these observations tell us about Heifetz’s consistent approach to the Prelude and other repertoire? Szigeti, Milstein, Menuhin and Gould all provide clear examples of how, for various reasons, musicians do alter their approaches to pieces over time ………..such as slowing down in old age………..Heifetz did not stray from his early conception of the Prelude……..a consistent approach in spite of advancing age and changing trends….”

There are no less than ten appendices at the rear of the book, including some interesting tabulations. The ones I found of particular interest were Published Editions of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, 1843-1971Critical Reactions to Heifetz Performances of the Bach Solo WorksBach Prelude Recordings arranged chronologically and lists of conductors, pianists and countries with whom and where the violinist performed between 1917-1974. In addition, there’s also a useful extensive bibliography. Throughout, notes are conveniently placed at the bottom of each page to facilitate easy access.
To sum up, this is a distinguished and scholarly publication, which has been extensively researched. I think it is probably rather specialist in its appeal, targeted at a somewhat limited market, aiming towards ardent devotees of the art of Jascha Heifetz, like myself, and more widely to those concerned with performance practice in the first half of the twentieth century.

Stephen Greenbank

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