Jascha Heifetz, violinist

Heifetz was one of the legendary violinists of all time, He was of average height, thin and aristocratic looking, with greyish/brown hair brushed back. He was always dressed immaculately, even at recording sessions.

When he played, he stood firm as a rock with no swaying or extraneous movements, but the music just welled out of him.

He never spoke much, and indeed, some people have accused him of being cold and aloof. He hardly ever smiled and the only joke I ever heard him crack was that up until the age of forty you are trying to get a technique, but after forty you are struggling to keep it!

Ron Pattison, a pupil of Heifetz once told me that you were only allowed to tune once during the lesson. Perhaps on one or two occasions Heifitz’s violin had slipped out of tune during a performance and he wanted his pupils to be able to adjust.

I played with him many times and I found his playing to be very warm, his technique dazzling and he made a glorious sound, but what made him truly great was his insight into the music. There are many violinists with a marvellous technique and a good sound, but their lack of musicianship prevents them from being real virtuosi. Heifetz was indeed a virtuoso.

Out of all the concertos that he played, I think he excelled in the
Tchaikowsky. In the last movement second subject it was thrilling to listen to his schmaltzy way of playing it on the E string with one or two glissandi.

I think he used to like Sir Malcolm Sargent to conduct the orchestra, as he had a very clear beat and was a fine accompanist.

I had a very good rapport with Sargent and also with the “fixer” for the London Symphony Orchestra, Bertie Lewis, who always phoned me to play as an extra if a good concert was coming up. He asked me to play when Sargent was conducting with Heifitz playing the Sibelius violin concerto.

In the last movement, second subject, there is a syncopated rhythm for the second bass in the divisi bass part. Things were not going too well, so Sargent stopped, and of all things asked me to play the part alone, by myself. This caused me a little concern. I wondered if he was picking on me, or perhaps wanted to know how I played. Anyway, I played it, Sargent was satisfied, and I noticed Heifetz gave an approving grin. I mention this, because it shows that when one is freelancing one cannot afford to make a mistake. If I had botched it I would most certainly never have been phoned again.

I’ll give an example. In the LSO there was a very good experienced
clarinetist who doubled on the E flat clarinet.We were playing “Till Eulenspiegel”, the tone poem by Richard Strauss and the performance was conducted by Josef Krips. At the end of the piece there is a shrill scream from the E flat clarinet, representing a scream from Till as he is about to be executed. The player botched it, and I never again saw him playing with the LSO.