This inexpensive and effectively remastered box is a great way to encounter the singular artistry, indeed genius, of Jascha Heifetz in a composer to whom he was particularly attuned. Heifetz was, hands down, the greatest fiddler the world has known to date. That doesn't mean his interpretations of his chosen repertoire (which was quite huge and included many chamber works) were always congenial. Usually, however, their passionate intensity convinces, even if one might object in theory to brisk tempi, laser-like tone, or pugnacious manner. That manner, that tone and those tempi, however, are well suited to Beethoven; consequently all of the Beethoven renditions contained in this box represent Heifetz at his finest His absolute technical mastery, of course, is to be assumed.
This box contains many treasures. Best, perhaps, are the the string trios with Primrose and Piatagorsky--there has never been a more convincing exposition of these somewhat elusive works. The duo sonatas with Bay and (in the *Kreuzer*) Brooks Smith are classic accounts that will appeal to listeners who like "lean-beef" Beethoven: trenchant, rugged, with clean classical lines and a minimum of schmaltz or fussy phrasing. The one drawback is the backward placement of Bay's and (to a lesser extent) Smith's piano in relation to the violin. Clearly the engineers (and probably Heifetz himself) wanted the spotlight firmly focused on the violin. That's unfortunate, because Beethoven's great sonata cycle is really the first to accord equal status--a true partnership--to the two soloists. If there's any mitigation in this regard, it would be that most Beethoven duo sonata cycles recorded around this time (1950's) suffer form the same sonic imbalance. Moreover, Heifetz's contribution in these works is so enthralling, for once I hardly mind the pianist being relegated to the status of accompanist. But if that's an issue for you, then be aware that Bay and Smith, though surely fine pianists, suffer subordination to the great violinist throughout.
The Archduke Trio with Rubinstein and Feuermann is a genuinely historic recording, from the early 1940's. It sounded great on RCA's previous digital transfer, despite some sonic constriction (analogous to viewing a vintage "un-colorized" black-and-white film). I hope the 20-bit remastering has enhanced what was an entirely listenable, if antiquated, recording. But what a performance! It burns with white-hot lyrical fervor throughout. I know of no other rendition of this work which makes it sound less genial and gemütlich and brings it more in line with Beethoven's symphonic works, and indeed even the late Quartets.
The concerto with Munch and the two Romances are superbly done, too. These are such well-known readings that little or no comment is called for on my part. Heifetz's earlier account of the Concerto with Toscanini is purer and, despite the presence of The Maestro, also somewhat freer than the stereo version with Munch. Much was a fine conductor, but the orchestral contribution is heavier (more prime rib than "lean beef" to continue the culinary metaphor), than under Toscanini. The later version, however, is still splendid in its own right--a soaring, utterly engrossing account, which convinces despite brisker than usual tempi and its extrovert manner. [If you want a more reflective, rarefied interpretation, try Schneiderhan/Jochum].
The other works included manifest similar virtues and (where relevant) idiosyncrasies.
Given the amazingly low price tag, this is an anthology no lover of great violin playing, great musicianship, and historical performances should miss. Heifetz was unique, a law unto himself, and nowhere is this singularity more impressive than in the music of that great singularity among classical composers who goes by the name of Ludwig van Beethoven.