One of my strongest memories of Music College is of walking through South Kensington in the rain and seeing a little sign in the local music shop. Jascha Heifetz had died. It felt like something really important and terrible had just taken place and I recall walking around in daze for about an hour. When I went back to college that day people asked me what was up. The general reaction from most of the student violinists was along the lines of `Oh, so what?` Or even `Who is he?` ;) It seemed a lot of young players at that time had all the latest Mutter and Perlman recordings but were not all that familiar with the Heifetz generation of players. Cut to the present day and I was once again really saddened by the extremely good quality book by Ayk describing her last years basically looking after Heifetz.
The funny thing is though, there is just one very significant passage in that book which seems utterly erroneous to me and verifiable as such. I don’t have my copy now, but it reads something like `The Heifetz Master class tapes do not represent what went on because the best students were chosen and the disparity between Heifetz and their level is not that clear.` On the contrary, when viewing those tapes, the striking thing is the way even a great (but not yet matured) player of the pedigree of Erik Friedman plays for example, an excellent Franck or Bach. Then Heifetz stands up says exactly the right thing and plays a thousand times better even in this time of life when his technique was diminished and he had some physical problems. The disparity is so huge at times its stunning.
As far as the Bach is concerned, I believe the Heifetz versions are awesome achievements. They are not my choice of listening but what is seen so clearly in the master class is to me, that even within the romantic primarily violinistic milieu that Heifetz occupied, the man understood line, beauty and rhythm like nobodies business. B he knew what mad e Bach flow and sing.
Which sort of brings me to an interesting question I have ha din mind for years. Why did someone who elevated the notion of violin technique so high cite the Bach sonatas and Partitas as the violinists bible, as opposed to the Paginini caprices or some other great and highly demanding repertoire? I know that Auer , in his little book noted that the violinist who can play Bach well need not fear the big concertos but that really doesn’t provide that much in the way of specifics.
One of the things I have found in my own practice is that a really efficient way to stay in shape and drag technique upwards is to practice the fugues. It is this work in particular that has clarified for me a very important maxim of private practice that often holds players back if ignored- breaking down phrases into smaller units to work on them is considerably less efficient if the chunk is not in itself musically viable. It might only be the difference between practicing note B and C together as opposed to A and B, but it often makes the difference between success and failure. How this relates to the fugues is that I find a strong tendency to look at a work and think `Well, this particular chord or sequence of chords is not so good so let’s break it down.` This may well improve things but somehow it doesn’t seem right. So I look back at the preceding phrase and it often turns out to be the case that a finger kept down from there is the foundation on which technical security in the phrase currently being practiced is based. Practicing the `difficult passage` without reference to the whole has not only been inefficient but counter productive because it may have instilled use of the fingers which does not connect up with the whole during performance. By observing this point I have found that there are actually –very- few difficult chords in for example, the g minor fugue. What one thinks of in isolation as a chord has simply been two fingers already prepared previously and placing a third down which is easy. Or it may be just one finger already in place from a while back so a double stop is simply superimposed. There really aren’t so many three part chords in Bach, at least in the technical sense!
And I think this idea was central to Heifetz` technique in many ways: a distinct lack of activity in the hands. Doing only what I necessary is virtuoso technique and there is no better place to work on that than the Bach, the violinist’s bible.
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.