PROKOFIEV:  Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63. (with the Boston Symphony Orch/Serge Koussevitzky).  GRUENBERG:  Violin Concerto, Op. 47 (San Francisco Symphony Orch/Pierre Monteux, cond. 

NAXOS 8.110942 (B) (ADD)  TT:  62:16

VIEUXTEMPS:  Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, Op. 31 (London Philharmonic Orch/ John Barbirolli, cond).  Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Minor, Op. 37 (London Symphony Orch/Malcolm Sargent, cond. SAINT-SAËNS:  Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (London Philharmonic Orch/John Barbirolli, cond).  Havanaise, Op. 83 (London Symphony Orch/ John Barbirolli, cond.).  SARASATE:  Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20 (London Symphony Orch/John Barbirolli, cond.)   WAXMAN:  Carmen Fantasy (RCA Victor Orch/Donald Voorhees, cond.
NAXOS 8.110943  (B) (ADD)  TT:  76:53

The first of these budget-priced reissues incongruously couples one of the major violin concertos with a commissioned work championed by Heifetz—although the master vioiliinist must have realized how vapid musically it was. This is the concerto written by Louis Gruenberg (1884-1964) in 1943 with the aim of creating "a popular work to rank alongside Gershwin's Piano Concerto."  Gruenberg didn't even come close to achieving this goal.  Heifetz advised the composer as the work was being written, insisting on plenty of "singable" melody for the soloist.  A touch of jazz here and there, some Straussian orchestral sonorities and opportunity for virtuoso display from the soloist cannot compensate for the paucity of worthy ideas in this thirty-eight minute work. Heifetz played the premiere but in spite of his advocacy the concerto soon fell into oblivion. RCA courageously recorded it (at Heifetz' insistence?) with the San Francisco Symphony and Pierre Monteux in sessions that took place in December 1945.

Prokofiev's composed his Violin Concerto No. 2 in 1935. Heifetz' recording made December 20, 1937 was his first big-scale RCA recording, aside from the ill-fated Sibelius concerto he recorded in December 1934 with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra which was doomed:  conductor and soloist could not agree on many factors; Heifetz insisted the masters be destroyed.  Fortunately one copy, albeit in poor condition, remained and can be heard in the huge Philadelphia Orchestra Centennial Collection. Heifetz gave the American premiere of Prokofiev's Second with Koussevitzky in Boston December 17, 1937; the concerto was recorded three days later.  It is a superlative performance, technically assured, rhythmically secure.  The exquisite second movement Andante assai has never sounded lovelier, even in the recording Heifetz made twenty-two years later with Charles Munch and the same orchestra.

The second CD offers virtuoso showpieces, the two most popular of Henry Vieuxtemps' concertos, Saint-Saëns' two violin/orchestra works other than the concertos, Sarasate's Gypsy Airs and the dazzling Carmen Fantasy arranged by Franz Waxman from themes of Bizet's opera.  Naxos notes tell of how in 1934 Barbirolli, after a tiring overnight trip with no sleep, arrived in London where he was met by record producer Fred Gaisberg who informed him that afternoon he was to recording Vieuxtemps No. 4—which Barbirolli had never heard.  After quick meetings with Heifetz the session took place and in three hours this stunning performance was recorded.  It was more than ten years later before Heifetz recorded the same composer's most familiar Concerto No. 5.  Gypsy Airs for years was credited to the London Phil, when actually it was the LSO.  In all of this music Heifetz's staggering perfect intonation and virtuosity make these essential recordings in any violin collection.

Mark Obert-Thorn's transfers are magnificent.  RCA's engineers caught much of the sound of the Boston Symphony, and you can hear all of it in processing that has eliminated surface noise but not affected orchestral—or solo violin—textures.  The Gruenberg is not quite as successful sonically as the Prokofiev or other concerted works even those recorded earlier—because the original recording is typical of the obtuse sound RCA achieved most of the time in San Francisco.  Still, these are CDs to treasure.

R.E.B. (March 2001)