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VIP 8 Vinyl in print from Impex: Heifetz and Monk

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Heifetz Beethoven – Beethoven: Sonatas Nos. 8 (opus 30, number 3) and 10 (opus 96)

Heifetz Beethoven - Beethoven: Sonatas Nos. 8 (opus 30, number 3) and 10 (opus 96)
Jascha Heifetz, Violin
Emanuel Bay, Piano
RCA LM-1914
Limited to 2,000 copies

The choice to reissue a 54-year-old mono recording is brave and to be commended. What this record may lack in audiophile terms, it more than compensates for in musical value and its improvement over the original. Heifetz is justifiably recognized as a master of his instrument, and this recording proves the point. What’s more special is the nearly flawless accompaniment by Emanuel Bay, a pianist I’m not familiar with, but one that has impeccable taste and sensitivity. Many similar recordings are marred by lackluster piano play, so this one is special. I would imagine that Heifetz was very picky and went through quite a few pianists. A great accompanist can make a great soloist sound great, but not the other way round. A mediocre accompanist can stop a prodigy in his tracks.

The recording, from the very first, has fantastic immediacy. Compared to the original pressing, the sound is more dimensional (good image depth), dynamic and with better frequency response. While the violin is clearly several feet in front of the piano and very close to the microphone, the piano sound illuminates the room, so the sound is not overly dry. This vinyl is superior to the original. I’m not sure whether the original RCA was pressed at the Indianapolis plant, but once stereo discs started production, their runs took priority, and was given the best machines and best employees, while mono pressings were relegated to the graveyard shift. With modern reissues, some of these mono recordings are only now being heard with good mastering and vinyl.

As far as the music goes, hearing Heifetz points out flaws with most modern musicians. His dynamic range and ability to shape phrases is superior to most of his contemporaries, and he thoroughly embarrasses today’s musicians (not just violinists). What’s more, Bay is on the same page, literally and figuratively, with Heifetz, and does an excellent job matching Heifetz’s phrasing. When Beethoven’s music calls for interplay, it sounds like the musicians are playing with one mind. There is calm confidence in approaching technically challenging runs that lesser players just rush through. At the same time, Heifetz manages to make musical statements with long sustained tones. A musician that can make several whole notes musically satisfying is a master indeed.

Sonata No 8

Composed in 1802, this is firmly in the “classical” style. Listening to Beethoven’s sonatas, in order of their composition, is a lesson in the development of a composer and change in musical tastes. The first and last movements of the 8th Sonata are quick and happy tunes, with emphasis on classical development, namely the sonata form, which was typical in the late 18th century. The middle Minuet movement is graceful, perhaps stately, and depends on the skill of the musicians to make something of it, which they do. The final Allegro Vivace finishes the piece in great fashion with excellent forward momentum provided by the musicians. Though a relatively early composition, you can hear Beethoven’s genius with the sonata form. It’s a pleasing composition and performance, first to last.

Sonata No 10

Composed ten years later, the 10th Sonata was dedicated to Beethoven’s pupil, Archduke Rudolph Johannes Joseph Rainier of Austria, who with violinist Pierre Rode, gave the first performance. Beethoven made concessions to Rode’s technique and the limited abilities of Archduke Rainier, creating a special piece with more emphasis on theme and variations, with subjects that were “serene”. Rather than “rushing and resounding passages”, we have a subdued piece written with the limitations of the artists in mind. That means it is challenging in other ways. Many passages sound like a duet, rather than a traditional violin sonata. Long lines, and interplay between piano and violin, require great taste, and a higher level of cooperation than music dominated by the violinist. This makes perfect sense: the piece was dedicated to the person who played the piano in the first performance, not the violinist. In the hands of lesser musicians, this piece can be dull. Rather, because it was recorded by a master, it is an intimate picture of a different side of Beethoven.

This isn’t your typical audiophile release, though the sound is quite vibrant. There are a few artifacts, but I wouldn’t classify it as a “historical recording”, which would infer “limited sound”. I was well pleased by the sound, but even more so to hear a rarefied level of playing that might be extinct, though I hold out hope that the headlong rush to “play fast and hard” hasn’t wiped out musicianship from every corner. This is a must for music lovers and students, as well as audiophiles looking for something with meat on its bones.

Monk’s Dream

Monk’s Dream
Thelonious Monk – piano
Charlie Rouse – tenor sax
John Ore – bass
Frankie Dunlop – drums
Columbia CS 8765

Monk’s Dream was the first Columbia release for the Thelonious Monk Quartet, and it was an auspicious one, ranking with his career’s best. The supporting musicians, whether through familiarity via hours of rehearsal or through a supernatural suitability, are able to both support and enhance Monk, while being able to stay out of his way. The job of working with a jazz genius like Monk is more difficult than working with a classical prodigy. Monk’s very nature was capriciousness, but maybe it was more fitfulness. His playing hinted at things only he could hear in his head, but that he was unable to realize. He would get stuck at points, as if he doubted what he just played, and he would repeat chords with slightly different voicing, and he would come up with rhythms that didn’t seem to fit the time signature, and he would generally blow the minds of everyone else.

Monk’s Dream, an appropriate title for a rare record that was able to more completely realize the ideas and whims of Monk, collects many older tunes that had appeared on earlier Monk dates, but all are presented with greater cohesiveness. And you couldn’t say that it lacks spontaneity. This music hasn’t been “rehearsed to death”. It reminds me of a really good infield. Through hours of practice and familiarity, great baseball players instinctually know where to throw the ball to complete a double play. They don’t know when the ball is going to be hit to them, but when it is, they throw the ball to where their teammate will be in the future, trusting that it will land in his glove. There is highly developed teamwork and familiarity here. And rather than breeding contempt, it is familiarity that breeds support and the permission to be free.

The selections are quite diverse, and you get to hear Monk play in a wide range of styles. Rather than forcing all tunes to “sound the same”, the style changes with the tunes, to complement the tunes. Though you think of him as having a very distinct style, which he did, he was a very knowledgeable musician capable of playing just about any song, and in many styles. The better question of Monk’s ghost would be why he chose a particular interpretation, seeing that so many options were available to him. None of the interpretations are so extreme that it would be off-putting to anyone except the most milquetoast of audiophiles. However, all the interpretations are thought-provoking.

This is a must-have for anyone who likes Monk, or the much underrated Charlie Rouse. Every track is strong. Two cuts are solo Monk, which highlight just how well the rest of the quartet is able to work with Monk. Earlier ensemble efforts held back Monk. This ensemble fits like a glove.

The sound makes it a must-have for audiophiles. It’s another of the great Columbia jazz releases that take on a presence and tonal balance somewhere between the laid-back Verve sound of Val Valentin and the aggressiveness of van Gelder. The recording balance and technique are nearly perfect. The vinyl mastering in this reissue, as well as the vinyl pressing, is superb. Buy it before you lose your chance.

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