Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
Various orchestras and conductors
Please see text for repertoire
Recorded between 1951-79
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: March 2004
CD No: EMI 5855622 (10 CDs)
This is a fine collection, one wide ranging, and one that display’s Yehudi Menuhin’s humanity. Such humanity includes some technical fallibility, which is more than compensated for by Menuhin’s deep musical responses. He played from the heart, and such instinct, while not always definitive, is also very persuasive and moving.
This collection offers not only a picture of Menuhin the interpreter from within the years specified but also an extensive ’history’ of violin music – from Bach to Tippett (in terms of chronology with such diverse concertos as the Brahms, Nielsen and Berg, not forgetting one by Paganini. Some rare material is included here alongside the more familiar examples of Menuhin’s discography.
The Berg, with Pierre Boulez and the BBCSO (1968), still seems to me one of the finest recordings, one of the most emotionally penetrating accounts of this passionate work. To be fair, Menuhin isn’t so happy in the Sibelius (LPO/Boult, 1955) but at least he’s not overwrought, and the finale’s tempo is perfect; and his account of Nielsen’s loveable work is given with great commitment and generosity (Danish Radio/Mogens Wöldike, 1952), very finely conducted. And with what kinship Menuhin plays Bartók, the Rhapsody No.2 (Boulez) and the Second Violin Concerto (Dorati, 1965), not the most fiery or technically easeful of his several versions but full of empathy and experience.
I could have done without Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, both for the ubiquitous music, and because, poetically expressive though Menuhin is, there’s a rather plodding approach that Alberto Lysy and his players do nothing to alleviate, contribute too in fact. The early-digital recording (1979) is OK but suffers some changes of perspective. (What a shame that Menuhin’s account of Bloch’s concerto, with Kletzki and the Philharmonia, wasn’t included instead.) Nevertheless, this CD does feature the rich ecstatic tapestry of Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia, wonderful music, which is distilled with the sort of insight one would expect with the composer conducting (1964), Menuhin being one of the soloists. A nice idea to include the Corelli Concert Grosso (Op.6/2) that inspired Tippett’s masterpiece.
Tchaikovsky’s Sérenade mélancolique (RPO/Boult, 1959) is beautifully turned, really quite soulful, quite a contrast with the open-air display of Paganini’s E flat concerto, which Menuhin had recorded in the 1930s with Monteux; he, unlike Fistoulari here in 1955 (LSO), had played the long orchestral introduction complete. I don’t think, in all honesty, that Menuhin surpasses his younger self. The concertos numbers 4 and 5 of Henri Vieuxtemps are finely done (1951/54, Susskind/Fistoulari) with real sympathy for their operatic qualities and showmanship while always eliciting a musical response. No doubting, either, the sincerity and aplomb he brings to Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole (all five movements, 1956, Eugene Goossens), and Saint-Saëns’s B minor concerto (1953, Gaston Poulet), and the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, and the Havanaise (Goossens again, 1957) – the latter two done with real finesse. This is the right kind of virtuosity, that which makes music rather than drowning it in an ego and empty gestures.
When it came to the great things, Menuhin dug deep. His relaxed account of Haydn’s C major concerto is very pleasing (1963), and his 1954 Mozart D minor (K218) is a real beauty. This is playing of brilliance and pathos, and John Pritchard’s stylish Philharmonia accompaniment is a pleasure in itself in its detail and point and, in the slow movement, its mellifluousness, which counterparts Menuhin’s intensity. More Mozart, in the shape of the sublime Sinfonia concertante (K364), which is given sparkling orchestral playing by the Bath Festival Orchestra and has a true comrade-in-arms in Rudolf Barshai’s viola playing; the slow movement is a momentous utterance, and the finale is given shape thanks to not taking the Presto marking too literally.
Bach has a CD to himself – the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto (1959) is a tad mechanical although Elaine Shaffer’s flute-playing makes amends; and if the 1958 accounts of the A minor and E major concertos are a little heavy-going, Menuhin’s expressive heart again compensates. The famous Menuhin/Ferras Double Concerto is here replaced by an earlier one with Gioconda de Vito (1953), Anthony Bernard conducting what seems to be the massed ranks of the Philharmonia’s strings – unenlightened maybe but there is light and shade although de Vito isn’t always equal to Menuhin in terms of timbral personality, even in the expansively-taken Largo.
Beethoven and Bruch come together, the former’s G major Romance is tenderly done, and the concerto finds Menuhin directing too – a smallish orchestra (Menuhin Festival) account that adds to the intimacy of this particular Menuhin conception. Both these 1971 recordings were only issued in 2003 – I’m not sure that Menuhin devotees will welcome the duplication, especially given this box’s rarities and use of less-obvious recordings when more than one of a particular work exist, which makes the set essential (to use the word!). Also from 1971 is Max Bruch’s ever-wonderful Concerto No.1, here given with incision, weight and lyrical concentration, and deep eloquence in the Adagio, and to a magnificent accompaniment from Boult and the LSO.
And it’s Boult at the helm for Elgar’s concerto, which Menuhin rather made his own through his famous 1932 version with the composer conducting. Thirty-plus years later, Menuhin’s youth is replaced by the insight of experience, even if there’s less wonderment (maybe): Boult’s presence on the podium adds another layer of feeling, and it’s good to hear again Menuhin’s free and stimulating account of Walton’s concerto – the composer conducting (1969) – in what is a quite lovely account of this inspired music.
Menuhin’s spacious account of the Brahms, with Kempe and the Berlin Philharmonic (1957), makes much of the soloist’s first entry and then entreats to much affecting interplay with the orchestra, the lyrical music given time to express itself. This warm account has much to commend it, although the finale is a bit subdued. Tully Potter, in his insightful and sympathetic booklet note, says that Menuhin plays Joachim’s cadenza; he doesn’t, the track listing says Kreisler, which is given an impassioned run-through by Menuhin. Beethoven’s other Romance (F major, Pritchard) is as equally touching as its companion, and there’s a stirring account of Mendelssohn’s E minor concerto with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos from 1971.
If there are times when one suspects that Menuhin is trying very hard to get round the notes, this ’trying’ has all the right type of endeavour. When he was in nimble and brilliant form – those Vieuxtemps concertos are a notable example – Menuhin could elevate such second-stream music to greater heights; and his handling of the already-elevated repertoire found an equal in terms of honesty and spirituality.