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8.111135 - MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 3 / PAGANINI: Violin Concerto No. 1 (Menuhin) (1934-1952)
Great Violinists • Yehudi Menuhin
Not often does a recording change the public perception of a piece of music and its composer, but it happened when the 18-year-old Yehudi Menuhin set down Paganini's First Concerto in Paris in May 1934. Up to then the work had been thought rather trivial and both August Wilhelmj and Fritz Kreisler had reduced it to one movement. As a child, Menuhin had also played just the Allegro maestoso, programming it in some of his earliest public concerts; but as he grew older, he took the concerto more seriously - not that he played it in a solemn way, but he dared to believe it was worth the effort to perform in its entirety. He himself gave the credit to his beloved teacher, saying: 'Enescu introduced me to Paganini, and he made me play his music at a time when the D major Concerto was only played in the first movement, and then only in an arrangement by Wilhelmj. Enescu said I should play the whole thing. Of course, it was a colossal thing. I played a lot of Paganini, and I am grateful to Enescu for that introduction.' While on holiday in the summer of 1933, Menuhin studied a new edition of the concerto and determined to record it. Backed by the best of the conductors who collaborated with him in the 1930s, Pierre Monteux - himself a former string player - the young violinist turned in a highly musical performance which at once made the name Paganini mentionable in polite society. Whether he investigated the concerto's background and discovered, for instance, that the slow movement portrayed a prisoner in his dungeon cell, is doubtful, but he mastered both the fearsome technical challenges of the work and its structure. He also dusted off the immensely difficult cadenza composed for it by Émile Sauret - Paganini had never written his own cadenza down. Menuhin would make other recordings of Paganini's music, including three more versions of the D major Concerto, and would play for the soundtrack of a film about the Italian violinist (even doing a screen test to see if he could act the rôle), but he would never again achieve such a fine fusion of the carefree and the scholarly as in these 1934 sessions.
Born in New York on 22 April 1916, Yehudi Menuhin died in Berlin on 12 March 1999. Between those dates he metamorphosed from 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 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 Enescu apart from two summers in Basel with Adolf Busch. From 1931 the family, who lived off Yehudi's earnings, established their home near Paris, and the following year the boy recorded Elgar's Violin Concerto under the composer's direction. He started playing sonatas with his sister Hephzibah in 1933, recorded a Mozart work with her that September and - having made further visits to the studios in the meantime - first appeared with her in public at the Salle Pleyel, Paris, on 13 October 1934. After a world tour in 1935 he took an eighteen-month sabbatical and then entered on a disastrous first marriage: his parents had not prepared him for real life. Many wartime concerts and a 1945 tour of the German death camps with Benjamin Britten were followed by a successful second marriage and a career lived in the limelight. In due course he took up conducting, making numerous recordings in that rôle, and although he never had much time available for teaching, he founded schools in England and Switzerland. The public, nevertheless, continued to associate him with the violin, even when he had given up playing it, and much of Menuhin's later life was spent trying to reconcile his increasing musical mastery with his diminishing control over his instrument.
Apart from the Paganini, the other gem here is the Chausson piece. We have all too few records of Menuhin's teacher Enescu, but unquestionably the best is his performance with piano of the Poème - he had known Eugène Ysaÿe, for whom it was composed. It was only natural that Enescu should teach the piece to Menuhin; and in fact it was the only work for which he gave the prodigy his own fingerings and bowings. Their joint recording made in June 1933 has long been regarded as a classic; but here we have Menuhin's second attempt, in which he arguably digs even deeper. This 78rpm recording from 1952 with Sir Adrian Boult, one of the violinist's favourite conductors, was supposed to be replaced the following year with an LP version conducted by the former violinist Gaston Poulet. In the event, the Poulet was shelved until the CD era and Menuhin made a stereo LP version in 1960 with John Pritchard. As for the Perpetuum mobile, which originally took up the last side of the Paganini set, it is the one sure-fire hit left by the Czech violinist-composer Otakar Nováček. Menuhin had already made one recording of it with piano, and he would make three more, but this is his sole version with orchestra.
The Mozart concerto must be seen as a staging-post along the road of Menuhin's gradual mastery of this composer's style. Frankly, not much Mozart was played in the 1930s and most of the prominent violinists knew one or two of the concertos at most. The first two concertos were rarely heard at all, in fact they were not recorded until the LP era. But as it happened, the only great violinist of the interwar years who played a lot of Mozart, including all five concertos and the Sinfonia concertante, was Menuhin's teacher Busch; and his love for the composer clearly rubbed off on his pupil. Menuhin's first recording of a 'Mozart' concerto, however, was the so-called No. 7, done with Enescu in 1932, and his second was the 'Princess Adelaide' Concerto, set down at the same sessions as the Paganini. He was to show a touching faith in this work, making a second recording in the 1970s even when it had been exposed as a modern forgery. The G major Concerto, K. 216, done with Enescu in 1935, shows a big advance, even though at his very first entry Menuhin plays, not the usual short note, repeated, but one long note. Perhaps this idea came from Enescu. Whatever the reason, by the time Menuhin made his celebrated 1961 recording he had decided that Mozart knew best - and had also slightly speeded up the final Rondo, rather too dainty here. He stuck to the questionable cadenzas by Sam Franko all his life, however. What a shame he did not think of trying Enescu's, which have rarely been recorded.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216
Nicolò Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major
Otakar Nováček: Perpetuum Mobile
Ernest Chausson: Poème, Op. 25
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