About this Recording
8.110964 - BACH, J.S.: Sonatas and Partitas (Menuhin) (1934-1944)

Great Violinists • Yehudi Menuhin

J. S. BACH: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 2

The performances included on the present release take us back to an era when Bach’s violin music, though well entrenched among musicians in Germany, was still making its way in the rest of the world. Only one generation had passed since Joseph Joachim had drawn the ire of George Bernard Shaw — then a trenchant if occasionally impudent critic, by playing unaccompanied Bach in London. Admittedly, the Hungarian violinist was past his technical peak by then; and playing baroque solo works on the modern violin involved a certain amount of compromise. Even the Bach players of the next generation, George Enescu, Adolf Busch and Joseph Szigeti, recognised that there would be some ‘scratch’ in their performances if they were going to extract the utmost expression from the music. The Russian virtuosi Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein were beginning to play unaccompanied Bach but they came to it with no background — Milstein even admitted that he approached Bach through the analogous solo works of Max Reger, written early in the twentieth century. Most people were performing the Sonatas for violin and keyboard with piano rather than harpsichord. The renaissance of the harpsichord was being led by the eccentric Polish player Wanda Landowska, a scintillating artist at her best but devoted to a massive, inauthentic battleship of an instrument which the firm of Pleyel had built to her specifications. On one occasion, she went backstage after a recital by the English Bach pianist Harold Samuel to lecture him on the necessity of using a harpsichord. ‘But Madame Landowska,’ he expostulated eventually, ‘I don’t like the harpsichord.’ Adolf Busch once scandalised everyone at a rehearsal during the Essen Bach Festival by telling another over-zealous lady harpsichordist: ‘Take your wire commode away from me!’ Into this confused scene in the 1930s stepped the prodigy Yehudi Menuhin, who had been hooked on Bach since Louis Persinger had played him one of the unaccompanied works at his very first lesson back in San Francisco. Whatever one may think of these youthful Menuhin interpretations — and he was to surpass them in later life — there is no doubt that at this time he played the violin beautifully, with a minimum of scratch; and his pleasing personality was the ideal medium for selling Bach to a still somewhat sceptical public.

Born in New York on 22nd April 1916, Menuhin died in Berlin on 12th March 1999. Between those two 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 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 Enescu apart from two summers in Basle with Busch. From 1931 the family, which was largely supported by Yehudi’s earnings, established a home near Paris; and the following year the lad recorded the Elgar Concerto under the composer’s direction. A world tour in 1935 was succeeded by an eighteen-month sabbatical and then a disastrous first marriage: his tyrannical parents had not prepared him for real life. Many wartime concerts and a tour of the German death camps with Benjamin Britten 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.

In regarding Bach’s unaccompanied violin works — three Sonatas and three Partitas — as the highest technical and musical challenge, Menuhin was adopting a point of view that today we take for granted. Having imbibed a love of the composer’s music first from Persinger and then from his two great teachers in Europe, Enescu and Busch, he often said that it 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 performance of this towering masterpiece, which opens the programme on this disc, comes from four and a half years later and is rather more assured, especially in the epic Fugue — only Bach could write a convincing fugue for a single violin! The two slow movements demand all the violinist’s spiritual involvement and the final Allegro assai brings a joyous sense of release. 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 E major Partita is basically a stylised sequence of dances, preceded by a Preludio which uses the technique of bariolage, in which the bow moves rapidly between an open and a stopped string.

The E major Sonata with keyboard has an involved recording history. In March 1933 HMV took the duo of Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin into the studio to set down their interpretation. It proved to be one of their few failures and despite having another attempt a year later, they gave up (but not before the set had been prematurely announced in the 1934 Victor catalogue, starting many collectors on wild goose chases). HMV turned next to Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin, who produced the rather chaste 1938 interpretation heard here. A further six years on, Menuhin’s US label tried to match him with Landowska in the E major Sonata. Those who were at the sessions reported that she was too assertive in the rehearsals and discussions. No doubt Menuhin, recording with a harpsichord for the first time, felt that she was on her home ground and deferred to her. The resulting performance has an equivocal feel to it but is of undoubted historic importance — and with two such characterful performers involved, it has many good moments.

Tully Potter

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