About this Recording
8.110991 - MENDELSSOHN / BRUCH: Violin Concertos (Menuhin) (1951-1952)

Great Violinists • Yehudi Menuhin
MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concertos • BRUCH: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor

Yehudi Menuhin might have been born to play Mendelssohn. He always had a soft spot for this composer, which probably had less to do with their common Jewish heritage than with the perfection of Mendelssohn’s craftsmanship. The E minor Concerto is often seen as a miracle of creation – never mind that its composition cost a good deal of sweat and tears. Menuhin the child prodigy was already whirling through its three movements by the time he was eight. Obviously his interpretation deepened as the years went by, but it is no coincidence that his first recording of the concerto, made in 1938, was one of the peaks of his somewhat overrated 1930s studio output. He was to make four recordings altogether, of which the second is presented here. He played the concerto around the world, his most emotional performance being given in 1950 to an all-black audience in apartheid South Africa, but he also made his own contribution to Mendelssohn appreciation by exhuming two forgotten early works, the F major Sonata and the D minor Concerto for violin and strings. In 1951 Albi Rosenthal, a dealer in rare books and musical scores, showed Menuhin the manuscript of this endearing little work which Mendelssohn wrote at the age of thirteen for his friend Eduard Rietz and the family orchestra. Menuhin was captivated, bought the manuscript, edited it, had it published, gave the first modern performance in New York on 4th February 1952 and went on to make three recordings of it. He and his sister Hephzibah also took up the other D minor Concerto, for violin, piano and strings, composed by Mendelssohn a year after the Violin Concerto. In his conversations with David Dubal, Menuhin described Mendelssohn as ‘the lucid romantic’ and mounted a spirited defence of him against those unable to appreciate a man who wrote ‘so perfectly, so sunnily’.

Born in New York on 22nd April 1916, Yehudi Menuhin died in Berlin on 12th 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 13th 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 war-time 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.

When Menuhin began his long recording career, he could work in studios on both sides of the Atlantic, knowing that his discs would have worldwide distribution through the reciprocal agreement between Victor and HMV. By the early 1950s this arrangement was breaking down, which explains why we have two Menuhin performances of the D minor Concerto so close together. The one reissued here was made two days after the Carnegie Hall concert, presumably with the same fifteen hand-picked string players who appeared there, and for the first time on record, Menuhin acted as violinist-director. The performance has a delightful freshness, reflecting his joy in a musical discovery and a new avocation. On 2nd April 1953 he recorded the work again in London, with Boult conducting, and the two performances were restricted to their own spheres of trade. When it came to the E minor Concerto, Menuhin was always able to make room for expression and persuasive phrasing without holding up the impetus of the performance. Inevitably there are fine moments in the 1952 performance reissued here, although the public has never taken this recording to its heart, as it has the 1958 version with Efrem Kurtz. The fault lies with the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, whom Menuhin admired but who did not have what it took to be a great accompanist. Nor did he ever conduct more than a token amount of Mendelssohn. (During the Third Reich, this composer’s music was even banned: a rare occasion when the embargo was broken was the concert of 11th March 1935, when Georg Kulenkampff played the Mendelssohn Concerto with Max Fiedler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic; then violinist and orchestra even managed to record the Concerto with another conductor – for export only.) Sadly, the Berlin Philharmonic is here at its dourest, so this is very much Menuhin’s performance and he rescues it with his appealing but never sentimental lyricism. Of course he also had to play a popular work much influenced by the Mendelssohn E minor Concerto, Bruch’s Concerto in G minor. It was the first piece he recorded with orchestra, back in 1931, and he returned to it four more times in the studio. Here we have his third recording, with the cultured Boston Symphony conducted by a former violinist, Charles Munch. The chemistry is not quite as fizzy as it would be in 1956 with Walter Susskind: the musicians seem determined to make something massive of the outer movements and there is a certain amount of straining after effect. The recording is also one of RCA Victor’s less luminous efforts, but, as if in compensation, the soloist is at his easeful best in the central movement, and it is always worthwhile hearing artists of the calibre of Menuhin and Munch getting together. Indeed, all three of these performances have their places in the Menuhin tapestry: they are important for our full understanding of this great-hearted musician.

Tully Potter

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