Yehudi Menuhin from 1956 playing Mozart’s Violin Concertos with BBC Symphony Orchestra and London Mozart Players [ICA Classics]

4 of 5 stars
Mozart
Violin Concerto No.1 in B flat K2071
Violin Concerto No.2 in D K2112
Violin Concerto No.3 in G K2163
Violin Concerto No.4 in D K2183
Violin Concerto No.7 in D K271a3

Yehudi Menuhin (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra [K207 & K211]
London Mozart Players [K216, K218, K271a]

Sir Malcolm Sargent1
Alfred Wallenstein2
Harry Blech3

Recorded: BBC Studios Maida Vale, London, 11 January 1956 [K207]; 14 January 1956 [K211]; 19 January 1956 [K216 & K271a]; 21 January 1956 [K218]


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: February 2020
CD No: ICA ICAC 5153
Duration: 118 minutes

Yehudi Menuhin performed these concertos live in the BBC studios during ten days in January 1956. He was then in his fortieth year and had long been regarded as a world-renowned musician. He had first appeared as a solo violinist, with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, at the age of seven. Six years later he was playing in Berlin with an orchestra under the direction of Bruno Walter. After moving to Paris, Menuhin then took instruction from Georges Enescu. It is notable that Menuhin’s Mozart performances are warm-toned and full of feeling, yet shaped in a classical manner; it may be that this style of playing is a reflection of a principle quoted to him by his tutor Enescu, who said: “however strong your emotional impulse may be, it should never destroy the basic pace nor twist the overall form of the piece from its architectural shape”.

Described on the label as “Master Yehudi Menuhin”; he made his first recording in 1931: Bruch’s G-minor Violin Concerto, the conductor was Sir Landon Ronald. In 1932 his career became firmly established when he recorded Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto, the composer conducting. The Second World War halted the progress of a great career, although the public always regarded him warmly – particularly when he gave concerts to survivors of Nazi concentration camps. Later he returned to Germany in what he described as an act of reconciliation, and worked with Wilhelm Furtwängler, whom he admired not only for his musicianship but also for the way in which he had helped Jewish musicians to flee Nazi Germany.

A decade later, at the height of his fame, Menuhin performed Mozart’s Concertos for the BBC. No transcript of K219 (The Turkish) performed with Sir Malcolm Sargent is available, although it took place on the same day as the recording of K207 where it is abundantly clear that Sir Malcom was a skilled accompanist; soloist and orchestra dovetailing one another with great skill. Such a full body of strings would not be heard in today’s Mozart performances, but Menuhin’s approach is suitably classical in outlook, and the orchestral backing adds richness.

Mid-20th-century style pervades these performances, and Alfred Wallenstein certainly gives a big-band accompaniment to K211. It is clean and clear in articulation but displays habits of the time, in particular the decision to use the B-flat horns in the lower octave, meaning that their sparkling replies to the violin in the finale are lost.

K216 uses a smaller orchestra. London Mozart Players had approximately 24 strings, yet under Harry Blech they sound so weighty that the balance gives the woodwind no more presence than if they were part of a full symphony orchestra. This is a fine interpretation, however. Menuhin delivers his phrases with calm deliberation and introduces dramatic asides with subtlety. This is the only concerto in which the cadenzas of composer and arranger Sam Franko are used; Menuhin plays his own in K207, K211 and K218. Franko is loyal to the composer’s original melodies and does not impose spurious ideas.

K218 finds Menuhin at his most lyrical. This is a delicate work, though there are times when the London Mozart Players give too hefty an impression. Menuhin is unhurried throughout, and the gentle Finale is gracefully achieved. Sometimes the moments of faster tempos can sound like a protest, but with Menuhin they become a bright additional smile added to the soft cheerfulness of the slower moments.

K271a is quite likely to have been composed by Mozart, but the score is obviously edited by a later hand, and appears to include much re-orchestration. (The ‘Sixth’ Concerto is now considered to be by Johann Friedrich Eck.) Unfortunately, the autograph score does not exist. It opens with an unimpressive, crudely forceful theme, but thereafter the music becomes more Mozart-like. This is an enjoyable piece that seems to have moved a fair distance away from the eighteenth century – was the rush towards the end really Mozart’s intention? Menuhin presents the whole work boldly and colourfully, and uses challenging cadenzas composed by Georges Enescu. The recording of this work is particularly clear, and the whole set is of very presentable broadcast quality, certainly sufficient to accord credit to Menuhin’s musicality and deep understanding of the music.

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