RENÉE MONTAGNE, host:
Violinists everywhere might raise a birthday toast on this February 2nd to two legendary performers. Fritz Kreisler, born on this date in Vienna in 1875, and Jascha Heifetz, born a quarter century later in what is now Lithuania.
They both played the violin, although the word play is quite an understatement. And here to tell us why is our classical music commentator Miles Hoffman. Start with the fact that both Kreisler and Heifetz were child prodigies.
MILES HOFFMAN: Astonishing child prodigies. Kreisler was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory at the age of seven. And by the age of 12, he was done. He was finished with all of his formal studies.
Heifetz was - Heifetz's career began basically as soon as he could walk.
MONTAGNE: In what ways did these two men define greatness?
HOFFMAN: Well, they both set standards, Renée. Anybody who ever heard Kreisler talked about the incredible warmth and sweetness of his sound, and his personality that the way he put music across that was so convincing and so heartwarming. This is from the second movement of Beethoven's "Sonata No. 8" for violin and piano. And by the way the pianist is no slouch, it's Sergei Rachmaninoff playing with Fritz Kreisler.
(Soundbite of Beethoven's "Sonata No. 8")
MONTAGNE: It's touching.
HOFFMAN: It's a very touching sound. Even - and with Kreisler, you always have to make allowances to the age of the recordings and the sound quality. You can still tell that there's something - it's a cliché - but remarkably human. You feel the human warmth in the sound.
MONTAGNE: Certainly Jascha Heifetz also was renowned for his sound.
HOFFMAN: Oh, absolutely.
MONTAGNE: Not, though, necessarily his warmth. Isn't that...
HOFFMAN: Well, that - no, that depends on whom you ask. Actually, Heifetz's sound was incredibly warm. See what - the standard that Heifetz set, Renée, was for this astonishing virtuosity. Nobody had ever heard somebody who could simply get around the violin like that and play these staggering virtuoso things with such ease.
(Soundbite of music)
HOFFMAN: Yeah. Whoa.
MONTAGNE: And you know there are films, of course, of Heifetz and -wonderfully. I mean, he's well into the 20th century. And to watch him do that is...
HOFFMAN: Yeah. You can watch him on YouTube, as a matter of fact. Type in Jascha Heifetz to the YouTube search engine and all sorts of wonderful clips come up. But my recommendation is get to know Heifetz just by listening and don't be distracted by the fact that you see this cold, stony-faced guy up there playing the fiddle seemingly expressionless, because the expression is all in the music.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Both Heifetz and Kreisler ended up at different points in the same time period in America.
HOFFMAN: That's right. They're both citizens.
MONTAGNE: And so they must have known each other.
HOFFMAN: Oh, they knew each other very well. Actually, there's a wonderful story, Renée. After Heifetz's debut in Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic, I think he was 11, he was at a private reception. And somebody said, oh, Master Heifetz or maestro - who knows what they call this amazing 11-year-old - would you play the "Mendelssohn Concerto" for the guests. And Heifetz said, oh, well I'd be delighted to, only there's nobody to play the piano. At which point a very distinguished looking gentlemen sat down at the piano and said, I'd be happy to accompany you, and proceeded to accompany the whole concerto from memory. And this distinguished gentleman was Fritz Kreisler.
I think that was the first time they met. And they eventually became friendly, they knew each other quite well.
MONTAGNE: So not what you might expect, jealousy.
HOFFMAN: I don't think so. I think there was a real mutual admiration. I do know, the story is a very famous one, that when Kreisler first heard Heifetz play - and again this was in Berlin when Heifetz was basically just out of short pants, he -
MONTAGNE: And Kreisler 25 years older.
HOFFMAN: That's right. Kreisler said to a bunch of violinist friends, well, I guess we might as well just break our fiddles over our knees.
MONTAGNE: Both of them had long careers as performers but were also composers.
HOFFMAN: Mm-hmm. Yes, they both wrote many, many violin and piano pieces. I would venture to say, and this is not an exaggeration, Renée, this is literally true that there's not a single violinist in the last 80 years, not one, who has not played at least a few of Fritz Kreisler's pieces of violin and piano.
If we listen to Kreisler himself playing his "Liebesleid" or "Love's Sorrow" you'll get an idea of why these pieces are well loved.
(Soundbite of Kreisler's "Liebesleid")
MONTAGNE: With the death of Jascha Heifetz, about 25 years after Fritz Kreisler passed away, has anything like him...
HOFFMAN: Anything like him?
MONTAGNE: ...been seen again?
HOFFMAN: Has there been a violinist whose name becomes a common noun, as in he's no Heifetz?
(Soundbite of laughter)
HOFFMAN: It is the same, you know. When you say somebody is not very bright, you say he's no Einstein. If somebody is not very talented, you say he's no Heifetz.
MONTAGNE: And if somebody's really talented, you might still say: still no Heifetz.
HOFFMAN: Well, there is that, yeah. You know, the thing about Kreisler and Heifetz - the most important thing they had in common, Renée, I think is that they were unique. Everybody during Kreisler's time said his sound was instantly recognizable. And any violinist will tell you that within three seconds of dropping the needle on Heifetz's recording you know that it's Heifetz's.
There are many fabulous violinists out there today, probably because Heifetz had such high standards. But is there the same kind of individuality, is there the same kind of instant recognizability? I'm not sure that there is. I know that when I listen to the radio - even with very, very fine violinists - I can't automatically tell who it is the way I certainly can with Heifetz. So, perhaps something has been lost.
MONTAGNE: Miles, they gather that you have a little bit of a birthday surprise, at least for us the listeners, in honor of Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler on this their birthday, two great players.
HOFFMAN: Heifetz often played Kreisler's music, Renee, and this is a recording of Heifetz playing a piece called "Tambourin Chinois," or Chinese Tambourine, by Fritz Kreisler. So Heifetz plays Kreisler.
(Soundbite of song "Tambourin Chinois")
MONTAGNE: Miles, thank you. It's been a pleasure.
HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renée.
MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is violist and artistic director of the American Chamber Players and author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion."
(Soundbite of song "Tambourin Chinois")
And you can find the list that Miles has put together of his favorite pieces from Kreisler and Heifetz at npr.org
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renée Montagne.
INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.