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Itzhak Perlman on his violin heroes

In this interview I did with Itzhak Perlman for The Strad’s Violin Heroes supplement in 2009, he remembered and analysed the violinists who had influenced him growing up, starting with – who else? – Jascha Heifetz. Like many people, I’m sure, as a child I listened obsessively to Perlman LPs, especially his Bruch G minor Concerto and his encore pieces, and I’m sure my love of the violin, as well as the ideal of sound and style I hold in my ear, are directly thanks to him. In the interview he talks about how he felt when he talked to Heifetz: ‘I would be sitting there, and every now and then I’d say to myself, “I’m talking to God.”’ And that’s exactly how it felt interviewing Perlman.

‘I have a hundred violinists who have inspired me. What is also important is when they inspired me, though. When you’re younger you get inspired by one type of artist, and as you grow up you become more aware of what other artists have to offer.

The first person in my evolution is Jascha Heifetz: he is probably my number one hero, if you wish to rate them. All fiddle players, me included, consider him to be God, the king. In my day there were a lot of kids who were trying to imitate him. When someone’s playing is that powerful and characteristic, there are so many things you can hear that are open to replication. He was the first one that people really tried to copy.

Heifetz lived in Beverly Hills, and every time I would go to Los Angeles, I would call him up, and he would say, “Why don’t you come?” So I would go to his house for about an hour and we talked. I would tell him that his incredible style and the dominance of the way he played was a curse to students. He asked why, and I explained, “Because everyone is trying to imitate you and they can’t.” When people imitate someone they don’t try to give the essence of what this person is about – they take the dominant traits and try to characterise them, so it becomes a caricature without the content. That’s what happened with him. I was never in that situation. In fact, I would always fight with my fellow students, saying, “Sure he’s a good fiddle player, but what’s-his-name is more profound.” But as I grew up I realised he was an amazing artist.

Heifetz was a great colourist. He used colours everywhere he could in a piece. Of course it always sounded like him: he was not someone who would say, “I’m going to do the music and sacrifice my personality and make sure that it’s all correct.” When you heard Heifetz play, you heard Heifetz play. You didn’t hear Beethoven or Bruch; you heard Beethoven played by Heifetz, or Bruch played by Heifetz.

He’d play little pieces that I would listen to, thinking, “This is such an amazing piece.” Then I’d buy the music, look at it and think, “That’s nothing. That’s a nothing little piece. How come it’s so great?” It was great because of what he did with it. He transformed a simple piece into something that was amazing, something that was unique in style.

Heifetz was the first modern player. There are some old recordings of people such as Ysaÿe, Sarastate or Joachim from a long time ago, before the Kreisler era, and you hear a particular way of playing. Then there was Kreisler, who was good but still in the old-fashioned way of playing. Heifetz was the first one to play in the grand heroic tradition. He was an individualist. I admired people like Milstein, Elman, Kreisler, all of whom had totally different styles, but Heifetz created a tradition for himself. However, if you hear his early recordings, he sounded like the players of his day, until he was about 16 or 17, and then he developed his own style and it was off to the races.

My first teacher, Rivka Goldgart, was a great Russian traditionalist and she told me I had to do what Heifetz did – scales every day. When he stopped playing, he would still play scales in the morning. As a result, when he played there was nobody with such perfect intonation, in addition to everything else. That was because he was sworn to this routine, until the end of his life.

I remember once I was speaking with him and told him that I loved the Elgar Concerto. He said, “I love the Elgar, but my real love is the Walton.” He was very involved in the writing of the piece and he would talk about that. I would be sitting there, and every now and then I’d say to myself, “I’m talking to God.” He had problems socially – he didn’t feel comfortable. I’m sure he felt great warmth towards people but he didn’t show it. If you talked to him he would be very cool. We had a fine relationship but it was very proper, businesslike, not touchy-feely – that wasn’t him.

Heifetz was not actually my first hero, though. That was David Oistrakh. I was absolutely crazy about him and the way he played. If I was every close to trying to emulate someone it was Oistrakh, although that only lasted for a couple of years. I had a Fritz Kreisler era, too, for a few months, when I would only listen to him. He was an incredibly intimate artist. I think of listening to him in a room where there’s a fire going, reading a book. I would imagine him as too intimate to play with an orchestra – for me he was best in violin-and-piano repertoire. When you listen to recordings of Kreisler, even scratched 78rpm records, you can hear the shimmering tone he had. I was enamoured with that.

I had an Isaac Stern period, where I stopped vibrating, because his vibrato was very economical. My Zino Francescatti phase didn’t take very long because he over-vibrated and he was a great artist, but I didn’t go with that. I had a short bout with Nathan Milstein, with his cool way of playing, the way he used vibrato and his incredible cleanliness. There was something about his vibrato that made his playing sound very elegant and sparkling clean, so I went through that. You try to do things that are typical of the player. I saw him once and we started to talk about Heifetz, and I said, “Heifetz has these incredible recordings.” Milstein replied, “Forget the recordings – you haven’t heard him if you didn’t hear him live. The recordings didn’t even do him justice.” And this was a person who was his classmate.

The important thing about having heroes is to get something and then to make it your own and go on. The people who get stuck with a Heifetz thing are never quite themselves, like in the Jewish story called The Dybbuk, about a person that goes into somebody else’s body – the Jewish version of The Exorcist. Sometimes when you have someone like Heifetz going into your every way of playing it’s almost as if you can’t excise this person. Some people had that happen to them.

Each great player had their own kind of characteristic: for example Heifetz was fiery, with a lot of slides and energetic vibrato: Kreisler had his burnished, intimate style. These players were on my way to my ear education and that’s the best thing about listening to people. You get more background. At the Perlman Music Program one of the things we do is to play videos of old artists, just to see what people did historically. Today young kids tend to listen to what’s going on at the moment, so we always try to play videos. Kids now also tend to move a lot, but if you watch a Heifetz or Milstein, they don’t move very much. It was very grounded and music just came out. It’s nice to educate kids by playing my heroes for them. Sometimes they say, “That’s nice,” or sometimes they say, “That’s weird,” but it’s important, otherwise you get stuck and the style becomes less and less important.’

Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

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