on 23 March 2011
This is going to be a long review (>3000 words), please jump to the following headings as you like:
[Content], [How to best use this box set - Beginner], [How to best use this box set - Returning fans], [Sound quality], [History] and [What else to buy].
*New - [Recording quality]
If you are concerned of sound quality, please note that Sony had enlisted outside sound engineers to do the remastering on ALL CDs (except CD100 Heifetz Rediscovered (remastered and released in 2009), and CD99 Schubert Trios (no LP ever released), source: last page of the booklet). In this review I shall refer frequently to the other versions of CDs I own, not to show off, but to do a decent comparison. I spent over USD500 on Heifetz CDs before obtaining this Set, and most of the money was wasted because the Set was so perfect in terms of sound quality. I know now I have to hunt no more.
I have the benefit of listening to this set since 23 January 2011 (received it as birthday present from my adorable girlfriend). This set was available for sale in Hong Kong (and in Taiwan) in early January and I can hardly understand why they are not made available earlier in UK/US.
I will confine my review mostly to sound quality, I will leave the comments on music to more knowledgeable persons.
This box set contains 103CD and 1 DVD (referred as "the Set"). Most of the CDs were digital replicas of LPs, complete with cover and text. The later CDs (number 8X to 9X) were replicas of the LP reissues. Some of these CDs had their content altered so as to accommodate the music from pre-LP era (such as the concerti with Barbirolli). The editor explained that it was to `prevent duplication', but I consider it as `ruining the original jacket idea'. Arguably Sony should have set aside some discs for these performances instead of messing up the LP reissues.
The sleeves can hold the CDs secure, except for the LP reissues, which employ a book-type holder to hold the CDs. These book-type holders are nightmare, to get CD2, you have to remove CD1 first, and slide CD2 to the slot holding CD1. A jewel case is much more suitable for holding 4 CDs at once than flimsy, waxed cartons. The CD itself looks like a mini LP. Collectors will be pleased.
The booklet are in 2 parts. The first part contains the stories told by Heifetz' students. It is interesting to note that the students considered Heifetz as a demanding, but kind teacher who would go a long way to help his students. In one story it speaks of Heifetz taking a separate personality (Jim Hoyle) before enjoying the birthday party his students secretly prepared for him. There are also stories of how Heifetz overcame the problem of broken violins and failing health. All in all it is one of the most interesting liner notes written for Heifetz.
The second part is the well-made index that allows you to find the discs in 3 ways. The works are sorted in 3 ways: a) by composers b) by year c) by medium (CD-only/never released before etc). A large number of pages were devoted to provide a snapshot of what a particular disc contains, the cover, music, time recorded, and accompanist. All the tracks recorded for RCA and Decca are listed, although the Decca tracks are not available in the Set. You can buy the 2CDs "It Ain't Necessarily So" from DG to fill the gap. Other recordings are not listed, such as the Mendelssohn VC with Toscanini (Naxos, Toscanini edition), so you still need a guide to discography.
Except the minor mistake for CD27 the pages are generally accurate. Do not lose the booklet as it is the ONLY source for accurate CD information, without it you will not know that CD88 was altered substantially to include the Tchaikovsky VC with Barbirolli (it is not apparent from the CD sleeve, or the image on the CD).
Compared with the Heifetz Collection ("HC"), this set lacks the Decca tracks (short, relaxing works) but gained the 2009 Heifetz Rediscovered, the Heifetz Performance DVD, and 3 CDs mostly consisting of never-released work. The biggest gain is the LEAP in sound quality (see below).
The 3 bonus CDs contain:
CD101 - Brahms VC (Koussevitzky, 1937), Chausson Poeme (Monteux 1945), and Scottish Fantasy (Weissmann, 1946)
CD102 - Dvorak Piano Quintet (Jacob/Baker/Piatigorsky, 1964), Benjamin Romantic Fantasy (Primrose, Janssen, 1942), and Toch Divertimento (Primrose, 1941)
CD103 - Beethoven Sonata 7 (Bay, 1936), Schubert Sonata No. 3 (Sandor, 1934) and Bach Chaconne (1942)
Heifetz witnessed the rise and fall of analogue recording, it is a shame that many of his great performances were recorded horribly. I shall give a brief introduction to recording quality by period
1910-1924: few recordings were made in this era. They are contained in vol. 5 of Doremi and the Early Acoustic Recording disc (CD81-84). Sound is not as bad as one think. The hiss and pop have largely been tamed although the instruments may sound a little distant at times. After careful remastering they are comparable with the early 30's recordings, which is a great accomplishment considering the difference of technology used.
The 30's: MANY legendary recordings were made in the 30's. By Legendary, I mean legendary amongst violinist, not just compared with Heifetz' later recordings. The 'reference' Sibelius, Vieuxtemps 4, Brahms double (with Feuermann), Wieniawski and Zigeunerweisen were made in this era.
The sound was nothing to praise about. Heifetz cleverly leaned closer to the mic, so we had the chance to hear his violin playing clearly. The orchestra sound was sacrificed , the string sounded muddled, woodwind disappeared and the bass was hollow. The result is consistently clear violin in the centre, with the orchestra rising up and down from the background.
The sonatas recorded in this era also has a clear violin, but the piano is swallowed up. Piano sound is muddled, not the kind of source to listen if you are learning the piano part of a given sonata.
The 40's: the sound is 'fuller', instruments sounded more realistic and the soundstage is more believable. The highs and lows are still messed up somewhat, but is still a great improvement over the 30's recording.
The 50's: golden age for recording! The Living Stereo experiment started in this era. Considering that the Living Stereo series(along with Mercury's Living Presence) are still regarded as one of the best sounding recordings in the world, these recordings are priceless verbatim of Heifetz' excellent violin sound. The instruments are realistic with little to no hiss. The only complaint is that sound stage can be quite confusing at times, either due to the difficulty of putting the centre channel correctly, or due to recording problem (such as the stereo only Scottish Fantasy, which sounded as if the orchestra is either on the left or right but never in the centre. As Hahn's Tchaikovsky VC recording from DG demonstrates, this kind of problem can still happen in 21st century, so the RCA engineers may be forgiven for their minor imperfection.
The 60's: the stereo recording sounded just like the 50's, clear with minimal hiss.
1970: the discs final recital were the last commercial recordings made for Heifetz. The sound is not as good as one hopes, the sound is somewhat 'distant' with the piano being eaten up at times. Compared with the crystal clear chamber music from 1960 (such as the Arensky Piano Trio, which led the editor in Gramophone to doubt whether it was recorded in studio instead of live performance), the recording was a big let down.
The above only applies to the recording made by RCA/Decca. For the Cembal d'Amour series, the sound appears to come from your toilet, heavily compressed soundstage, distant, the highs and lows are cut off etc. I will only buy those discs that contain never-before-heard performance (such as Disc 1, the Vitali Chaconne with Orchestra).
---How to best use this box set - Beginner---
If you are new to Heifetz work, I highly recommend you to open the booklet and look up the chronology for disc release, and pick your favorite work recorded between 1950 to 1960. The Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Prokofiev No. 2 VC plus the Scottish Fantasy were widely considered as the Heifetz' domain and all of them are available in very good sound.
You may also check out the Heifetz-Piatigorsky concerts, which are also in very good sound.
For relaxing jazz music, pull out those CDs with the words "Encores" on the spine.
---How to best use this box set - Returning fans---
For those of us who have listened to all the modern concerti, it may be interesting to check out their earlier versions. Although Heifetz was said to have never suffered from technical decline, this statement is only true in its relative sense (e.g. when compared with Menuhin). The truth is, like all mortals, Heifetz was not in his prime when he reached 50 y.o. Take out CD22, play back the 1st movement of Sibelius VC and compare with the 50's version, one can immediately understand why the Beecham recording was so praised. Heifetz practically ate up the difficult passage at neck-breaking pace, marvelous!
Another example is the Tchaikovsky VC with Susskind, in the last movement Heifetz was at ease despite the speed and technical demand of this piece. In the 50's recording, Heifetz was in a bit of a struggle at times.
Lastly, in the 2 discs final recital, one can compare the Franck and Strauss violin sonatas with the earlier ones (CD25 for Franck (but not Strauss), and 39 for Strauss). In his 70's Heifetz was not his former self, and though his playing was still good compared with other players, he was relatively tense in the latter performance.
You may also want to check out CD65 for some forgotten gems (Vivaldi Concerto, and Arensky Piano Trio)
I do not wish to bother you with careful analysis regarding sound quality other than to say I am pleased with ALL of the discs I have come across (about 50 of them). In short, I consider the Set to be superior compared with the Naxos and Biddulph I own. I am going to compare the reissues with the Set with the following discs. Price is included to give readers an idea of how "cheap" this set is, considering that it compares nicely with much more expensive alternatives.
Naxos VS the Set - Franck Sonata with Rubinstein, 2nd mvmt
The first 10 seconds demonstrated the superiority of the source used in the Set. The piano in Naxos appeared to come from afar and the excessive reverberation obscured Rubinstein's playing. The Set was able to reproduce a more realistic piano sound. Naxos' version is not entirely worthless however, as the highs are muted somewhat and not as brilliant as the Set, some people may prefer this.
I got the Naxos for ~USD6
Biddulph VS the Set - Strauss Sonata with Sandor, 3rd mvmt
My conclusion is pretty much the same as above. Not only is the piano more realistic in the Set, it also contains less noise and a more immediate sound stage. The Set wins hands down.
I got the Biddulph for ~USD30 with shipping, second hand!
JVC XRCD vs The Set
Round 1: Zigeunerweisen with Steinberg
This is one of Heifetz' showpieces. The recording was done well but it was in mono. I prefer the XRCD version although the version from the Set was not bad. The XRCD has a louder volume, and more surface noise (even at the same loudness as the Set). In the last 30 seconds of the final movement, the XRCD clearly exhibited more bounce and less screechy sound. The Set sounds a little too "digital", but still beats the HC version and unsurprisingly the Bluspec CD.
I paid USD30 for XRCD, 25 for Bluspec CD and about 11 for Vol. 11 HC.
Round 2: Bruch and Wieniawski No. 2 with Solomon
The XRCD containing the Bruch and Wieniawski was not made available outside Japan. I got this CD for USD50 from Amazon Japan, and imagine how disappointed I was when I found out it sounded just as fine with the Set. The recording was nothing to praise about...I should have expected this.
JVC XRCD vs The Rubinstein Collection - Tchaikovsky Piano Trio
Big surprise, the Rubinstein Collection was a hair better. The recording was done very poorly with the piano was relegated to inaudible level from time to time. The Rubinstein Collection, being "Rubinstein's" collection, brought back some of the piano sound from the oblivion. This translates to another USD50 wasted for the Japan-only XRCD version.
The Art of Jascha Heifetz (Sony BMG Japan, 2001) vs The Set
No audible difference, and each disc in the Art of Jascha Heifetz has been included in the set.
I paid over USD250 to collect all the discs in this project, each disc was sold at mid-price (~USD10 to 13).
SACD vs other versions
I don't have a SACD player, but from what I gather, the SACD layer does a much better job compared with standard CD. The CD layer is at least as good as all the other versions (the Set and XRCD). A minority of people consider the XRCD version to be better than the CD layer of SACD, because the sound is less digitised on XRCD. I cannot discern the difference.
An interesting note: from the XRCD of the Gershwin music and Music from France, the source was expressed as "3-channel recording". This means it is definitely a worthy candidate for SACD release. Sadly Sony has yet to give this the SACD treatment.
Heifetz left us in 1987, and in 1991 RCA released the Heifetz Collection as a complete set of CDs containing the wealth of Heifetz' recording. Not many sets were produced. Individual CDs from the HC were released, but gradually they disappear from the market. As of 2009, my understanding is that only the volumes holding the modern concerti (also available on SACD), the unaccompanied Bach, and vol. 11 Showpieces were being produced. Many less famous work, such as the Arensky Piano Trio, cannot be found on "A N Y" CD ever since Sony discontinued the majority of the HC discs.
The HC was a sore sight for all Heifetz fans. On one hand it was the only source for obtaining Heifetz' lesser known performances on CD, on the other hand the remastering was done exceptionally poorly. I own 4 CDs for Zigeunerweisen (HC, Bluspec Disc, XRCD and this set) and HC clearly came out last. The sound was screechy and dry. The HC did not do justice to Heifetz' playing! This problem also plagued many RCA/Sony releases in the 90's.
As a general rule, one should avoid the HC version where possible.
Due to the poor quality of HC, many labels had done the remastering themselves and released better versions on CDs. The more notable labels included Naxos, Biddulph, Pearl and Dutton. From time to time these reissues were preferred over the HC version, for example the Biddulph reissue of the Strauss Violin Sonata with Sandor and Sibelius VC with Beecham was included in Gramophone's top 100CD.
In 2001, BMG Japan initiated a remastering project to commemorate Heifetz' 100th birthdays. The Red sleeves "The Art of Jascha Heifetz' reissues were available first and they include mostly the concerti recorded in 1950-60. The blue sleeves "The Art of Jascha Heifetz" were released shortly after and they contained the real gems: 20 volumes of lesser known work, such as the Tchaikovsky VC with Susskind, Beethoven VC with Toscanini, and the Brahms double with Feuermann. They sound much better than the third party reissues above, possibly because of the superior source used. It also included much chamber music, which for the first time, are released in acceptable sound.
Also, the Rubinstein collection emerged in 2001, with remastering done by a legendary sound engineer (John Pfeiffer). Some of the discs contain the performance with Heifetz (and/or Piatigorsky and Feuermann). The RC should not be looked at lightly, for the remastering was done so well that it beats the XRCD version of the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio (below).
In around 2005 to 2009 there was a proliferation of XRCD and SACD reissues, mostly of the 1950-60 concerti. The SACDs are particularly impressive, presenting the performance in 3-channel (i.e. the way it was recorded) for the first time.
Then we come to 2011, a complete set for Heifetz again! The remastering was done beautifully. Obscure works (Vitali's chaconne, Arensky's Piano Trio etc) got their new breath of life. Let's hope Sony will be smart enough to make these discs available (as with the Rubinstein Collection) for many years to come.
---What else to buy---
For the collectors - Naxos: Mendelssohn VC with Toscanini, DG: It Ain't Necessarily So (if you didn't own the Decca Masters already), the Cembal d'Amour volumes, and the Doremi volumes. Sound quality varies, particularly with Cembal d'Amour volumes, which are based mainly on fans' recording of radio performance. The Sibelius VC with Stokowski is worth considering, but from what I have heard it is not something one will miss.
For the audiophile -
XRCD: only the one with the track Poeme is worth buying. I own the Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Mendelssohn VC on XRCD and they do not sound better than my SACD equivalent. Plus they cost 4 times as much "per track" (2 times the price per disc, and only 1 concerto on each disc).
Rubinstein collection: although I own many Rubinstein collection CDs for the performance with Heifetz, I am yet to go through them all. The Rubinstein Collection was remastered VERY well, and may come out ahead of the Set (more testing required).
SACD: 60 minutes of 3 channel (sometimes 2) performance for USD8 each? I will buy one set for my son and another for my grand-daughter. SACDs cannot be duplicated so it is prudent to buy now when it is available.
Bluspec CD: I only own the Bluspec CD with the Zigeunerweisen, and it was total crap. From what I gather Bluspec CDs are NOT remastered (unlike XRCD), presumably Sony used the bad child from HC for my disc. I do not know if this is in fact the case and I don't know about the rest of the Bluspec CDs, but I will stay away from them, especially since they cost 50% more.
For those who think the superior material (one used for Blu-ray disc) make better sound, please answer this question: does your steak taste better on a gold plate than on a porcelain plate? Don't fall into the material trap, CDs are digital medium, it is meant for storing 0101011s, so long as the 0s and 1s are distinguishable any material will do fine. The buffer and the reading capability of a decent CD player are usually sufficient to cancel any benefit created by the `better' media. Pay for the remastering effort, not the material.