About this Recording
8.110918 - BACH, J.S.: Sonatas and Partitas (Menuhin) (1934-1935)
English 

Great Violinists o Yehudi Menuhin
J. S. BACH: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1

The musical world loves prodigies, especially when they play the violin, because even the man in the street can tell instinctively that it is a fearsome instrument to master. But the arrival of Yehudi Menuhin on the world stage in the late 1920s was different from the sensations made by Mischa Elman, Florizel Reuter or Franz von Vecsey For one thing, his timing was perfect. The rise of radio, the invention of the microphone, the electrical recording process and the 'talkies' with their attendant newsreels, the new ease of communication… all played their part in making this prodigy an object of global attention. He smiled, he looked like a pleasant, well-brought-up child and he fiddled with uncanny ease. Wherever he went, the Press reported what he liked to eat, who his favourite composers were, where he liked to stay when he was in town. And records played their part, bringing the amazing child to thousands who had never heard him in concert. Just as every middle-class parlour with its cabinet gramophone had rung to the tones of Caruso or Kreisler a decade or so back, now the 78rpm disc on the turntable was likely to be one of Menuhin's. His record companies, Victor in the United States and HMV in the United Kingdom, poured out a flood of releases to satisfy the demand - so that Menuhin's early discs became millstones round his neck. When he grew older and was a far greater musician, critics still pointed out that he had actually played the violin better in the 1930s.

Born in New York on 22nd April 1916, Menuhin died in Berlin on 12th March 1999. Between those two dates he grew from being the child of obscure Russian immigrants into Baron Menuhin of Stoke d' Abernon, perhaps the best-known musician in the world and a sort of international statesman. He was brought up initially in San Francisco and after two years of lessons with Siegmund Anker, began studies with Louis Persinger in 1923. Two years later he gave his first full solo recital; then in 1926 came his New York début, his concerto début in San Francisco and his first trip to Europe, where he studied in Paris with George Enescu apart from two summers in Easle with Adolf Eusch. From 1931 the family, which was largely supported by Yehudi's earnings, established a home near Paris; and the following year the lad recorded Elgar's Violin Concerto under the composer's direction. A world tour in 1935 was followed by an eighteen-month break and then a disastrous first marriage: his tyrannical parents had not prepared him for real life. Many war-time concerts and a tour of the German death camps were followed by a successful second marriage and a career lived constantly in the limelight; but much of Menuhin's later life was spent trying to reconcile his increasing musical mastery with his diminishing control over his instrument. The recordings on this disc were made when he was at the peak of his technical powers.

Violinists have long regarded Bach's unaccompanied violin works, three Sonatas and three Partitas, as the highest technical and musical challenge. Menuhin was no exception. He imbibed a love of the composer first from Persinger in California and then from his two great teachers in Europe, Enescu and Busch; and he often expressed the view that Bach's music must be played with 'a spirit of reverence'. If his vigorous use of the bow for articulation came more from Enescu, his rugged view of Bach's Allegros and the almost religious intensity he brought to the Adagios owed as much to Busch; and he made his first recorded attempt at this music, a rather jejune account of the C major Sonata, in November 1929 after his first summer with the German master. The contrast, however, between Enescu the romantic and Busch the classicist could lead to problems for the pupil, as Menuhin found when learning the first work in our programme. 'I remember studying the Bach G minor Sonata with Busch,' he said, 'and then later playing it to Enescu in the way I had studied it. I began the Fugue forte, and Enescu asked me why I felt that piece should begin as loudly and as authoritatively as that. I replied (remembering the words of Busch and not willing to betray him) that I thought all fugues had to begin forte, because the theme was being announced [...] Enescu suggested that Bach himself would have begun this Sonata in a mood of search - like beginning a great tapestry with one thread, but not expecting that thread to bear the whole weight of what will become the tapestry. Being rather a stubborn child, I did not capitulate immediately, and Enescu simply said; "Well, you just think about it for yourself." Of course I have decided since, and I am sure Enescu was right.' The recording, made five years after this incident, finds the nineteen-year-old violinist still occupying a position halfway C between his two teachers.

Menuhin liked to stress his Hassidic Jewish ancestry and to point out that dancing played a large part in his genetic heritage. He always tried to release the Terpsichorean element in Bach. The two Partitas here are basically stylised sequences of dances, based on the classic pattern of Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue but brilliantly varied by Bach. The Partita in B minor features a Bourrée instead of the final Gigue and follows each dance with a Double, or variation, while the Partita in D minor ends with Bach's most monumental single movement, the celebrated Chaconne. It must have been difficult for Menuhin, then just eighteen, to record this huge span of music in the stop-go 78rpm way, one five-minute side at a time; but he succeeded in giving the illusion of continuity. For these recordings he used the 'Prince Khevenhüller' Stradivarius which he had been given by an admiring New York banker in 1929.

Tully Potter

Ward Marston

In 1997 Ward Marston was nominated for the Best Historical Album Grammy Award for his production work on BMG's Fritz Kreisler collection. According to the Chicago Tribune, Marston's name is 'synonymous with tender loving care to collectors of historical CDs'. Opera News calls his work 'revelatory', and Fanfare deems him 'miraculous'. In 1996 Ward Marston received the Gramophone award for Historical Vocal Recording of the Year, honouring his production and engineering work on Romophone's complete recordings of Lucrezia Bori. He also served as re-recording engineer for the Franklin Mint's Arturo Toscanini issue and BMG's Sergey Rachmaninov recordings, both winners of the Best Historical Album Grammy. Born blind in 1952, Ward Marston has amassed tens of thousands of opera classical records over the past four decades. Following a stint in radio while a student at Williams College, he became well-known as a reissue producer in 1979, when he restored the earliest known stereo recording made by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1932. In the past, Ward Marston has produced records for a number of major and specialist record companies. Now he is bringing his distinctive sonic vision to bear on recordings released on the Naxos Historical label. Ultimately his goal is to make the music he remasters sound as natural as possible and true to life by 'lifting the voices' off his old 78rpm recordings. His aim is to promote the importance of preserving old recordings and make available the works of great musicians who need to be heard.

Producer's Note:

The customary way of combining Bach's unaccompanied sonatas and partitas on CD is to alternate them. Therefore, the normal sequence for the first CD would be Sonata no. 1, Partita no. 1, and Sonata no. 2. I have had to alter this convention, however, owing to the fact that Menuhin's 1936 recording of the second sonata was never published on 78 rpm discs. Therefore, I have chosen to include the second partita.

The transfers heard here were made from mid-1930s America RCA pressings. Four sets of each recording were carefully compared, and each side was chosen for the quietest surface and the least amount of distortion.

Ward Marston


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