Heifetz has a reputation as being 'head and shoulders' in a class above all the other great violinists of the 20th century. He is loved for his virtuosity, poetry, and fiery temperament. His playing is definitely an inspiration. He also deserves much credit for many commissions, transcriptions, and for widely playing the then unknown Sibelius Concerto.
However, I do not see him as the undisputed king of the violin during the 1900's. In the music of the greatest composers, ie sonatas and concerti by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn I would really prefer to listen to someone else. For me, Heifetz has many idiosyncrasies as a violinist which work to the detriment of these composers' works.
His sound is consistently aggressive and scratchy. I have heard that he supposedly insisted on having the microphone very close to his f-holes when he recorded, and that he did not sound scratchy in a large hall. But if he's so close to the mike, then why does his sound never seem to ring? It always sounds so dry, as if the sound is being sucked up by a vacuum. Quite often when he plays spiccato I hear more scratch than pitch.
Young children are taught early on not to rush. But Heifetz seems to completely disregard tempo, to the detriment of the performance constantly insisting on playing ahead of his orchestra, pianist, or chamber group. He rushes and exceeds his own previous tempo consistently in a way that could not be considered rubato.
His pitch is questionable much of the time. Double stops are out of tune, high notes are off center, and he constantly plays sharp. This especially apparent in his Waxman and his Chausson recordings, as well as all his chamber music.
Ah, his chamber music. One author described as the best recordings of the day alongside the Juilliard and Budapest Quartets. Well, I have recordings by the Juilliard and Budapest so I would like to respond. I think Heifetz's chamber music is just awful and not even worth listening to. The way he butchers the Schubert cello Quintet or the Mozart g minor viola Quintet is shocking. The author of that book also suggests that chamber music was not totally suitable for Heifetz because his sound was more beautiful than the rest of the group, but after listening to his recordings I could swear his sound was much more shrill and ugly than the rest of the group. I have not found anything that special about his recording of the Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn trios either, I have heard those pieces played more convincingly many times.
He had a reputation for "perfection", critics and authors alike use that word far too often. I find him far from perfect. Milstein and Szeryng are quite close to perfect, but Heifetz misses a lot of notes, scratches, plays out of tune, and plays sharp. So why did the term "perfection" become so closely associated with Heifetz rather than Milstein?
Despite these complaints I still have many of Heifetz's recordings and really love listening to them. Among them, the Elgar and Walton violin concerti, the Bruch Scottish Fantasy, that wonderful cd with the concerti of Prokofiev, Glazunov, and Sibelius, and his Viuextemps 5th concerto. Many short pieces are sheer magic with him too. But the great concerti by Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and Mendelssohn and the Beethoven and Brahms Sonatas? I would take among others, Szigeti, Oistrakh, Stern, Perlman, and Milstein over Heifetz on these pieces.
Is Heifetz a phenomenal violinist and a great artist? Absolutely.
Is Heifetz the 'violinist of the 20th century' and the greatest violinist ever? Nah.
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