GLAZUNOV:  Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 82 (with the London Philharmonic Orch/John Barbirolli, cond. rec. March 28, 1934).  BRUCH:  Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46 (with the RCA Victor Orch/William Steinberg, cond. rec. Sept. 12, 1947). BRAHMS:  Double Concerto in A Minor, Op. 1012.  (with cellist Emanuel Feuermann, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orch. rec. Dec. 21, 1939).

NAXOS 8.110940 (B) (ADD) TT:  74:58

Whatever disappointment you may feel about Naxos' contemporary recordings of, say, Aleksandr Glazunov's orchestral oeuvre, you've got to love them for historic restorations of this caliber—not just glorious fiddling by Heifetz in his 30s and 40s, but impeccable transfers from shellac 78-disks and masters by Mark-Obert Thorn. Of outstanding interest is the Glazunov Violin Concerto, recorded by HMV in March 1934 with Beecham's London Philharmonic, conducted by John Barbirolli (still years from becoming Sir). The warmth of Heifetz's tone and interpretation contrasts starkly to his note-perfect but icy remake three decades later with Walter Hendl leading one of those "RCA Victor Orchestras"—an approach that yielded riveting results in the Sibelius Concerto at Chicago, but not in Glazunov's sweet but quite fragile creation. There is even a touch of portamento in Heifetz's 1934 playing of the tenderest moments, indubitably suitable.

Well-chosen companion pieces—Bruch's Scottish valentine, neglected by most other violinists until comparatively recently, and Brahms' reconciliation concerto for Joachim—are not collaborations of quite the excellence heard in Glazunov. Heifetz back in 1947 tended to sectionalize Bruch beyond the composer's designation of four movements, and William Steinberg hadn't the chops to defy him, or an RCA orchestra of the caliber Hendl commanded. Recorded in Hollywood, this one contained mostly members of the Los Angeles Phil plus some studio players. The L.A. Phil was not then what it became under André Previn, Carlo Maria Giulini, and currently Esa-Pekka Salonen. This is a multicultural "Scottish Fantasy," of its kind charming, but equaled and a couple of times surpassed in the five-and-a-half decades since, especially by Heifetz himself in 1961, when Sir Malcolm Sargent proved to be a persuasive and musically salubrious colleague.

There is an interesting program note by Mr. Obert-Thorn about the masters used in his transfer of the Brahms "Double," recorded in Philadelphia's Academy of Music by Charles O'Connell just before Christmas 1939. Heifetz's equal partner, make no mistake, was the storied Galician cellist Emanuel Feuermann (1902-42), two years younger than his Latvian-born colleague although destined to die tragically of peritonitis during an operation in 1942. There was, as the notes imply, a palpable sense of contest between the two—rather than Heifetz's customary domination—in this last work of Brahms for orchestra. Conductor Eugene Ormandy was consummately adaptable in those days, but not yet a maestro willing to rise above the level of accompanist in that tempermental environment, or able to make the best case for Brahms.

It was his senior countryman and career-long competitor, Fritz Reiner, who took charge in a pre-stereo replacement that RCA made with the same orchestra (alias the Robin Hood Dell Symphony) in the same venue 12 years later, when the soloists were Nathan Milstein and Gregor Piatigorsky—on the same wavelength and happy to be there. If the latter was no Feuermann (try to imagine Starker's patrician artistry with a side order of Yo-Yo Ma's showoff-manship), Piatigorsky was on his best behavior when Reiner conducted his recordings. As for Milstein, he was Heifetz's musical peer and damn near as great a fiddler. Although RCA's "Legendary" CD remastering by John Pfeiffer could not mask the Academy's hardness of high-string tone during that period, the later performance is preferable to its predecessor— indeed, more vibrantly musical than any since (Perlman, Mutter, Stern, Rostropovich, Ma, et alii in various combinations). Oddly, although three seconds slower, the Heifetz/Feuermann version sounds brisker overall, almost to the point of haste—go figure.

What makes the Naxos unique, despite a slew of duplications on various labels, is Obert-Thorn's access for the first time ever to "a set of shellac test pressings made for... O'Connell, with different takes of the second and third movement from the ones originally issued, as well as undubbed matrices for the first movement." Thus the bargain is compounded, and the end product—all 75 minutes of it—becomes uniquely treasurable.

R.D. (Jan. 2001)