, February 2005
"The name of Ward Marston on the cover of a reissue disc with old 78s or, for that matter, early vinyl LPs, is normally a guarantee of high technical quality. This well-filled CD with 6570+ year old recordings is no exception. He has cleaned the originals and lifted the instruments out in the open so that even the most die-hard opponents of the idea of listening to those scratchy old things should be able to enjoy the music without being distracted by technical shortcomings. Actually, even my wife who has been allergic to my favourite 78s since we first met, can now sit through a short listening session without having a break-down. Until not long ago she invariably left the room whenever a Caruso or Gigli or Schnabel was within eyesight. Still it has to be admitted that the violin poses some problems, due to the high frequencies that the old recording technique had problems registering. There is also the failure to render the even higher frequencies of the overtones, the lack of which makes the instrument sound even thinner and more wiry in tone. Ward Marston has done what is possible to accomplish with the material available and the result is admirable. However he cant produce the missing overtones from nowhere so with all respect the violin tone is thin and tends to disappear in the very highest register. The recording of the piano tone is considerably more natural. I hasten to add, though, that you very soon get used to the sonic limitations and that is a compliment to Marston as well as the musicians and the composer. After a few bars I was wholly engrossed in the performances and remained so for the rest of five quarters of an hour.
Yehudi Menuhin (19161999) was one of the most fabulous musicians of the 20th century and he enjoyed a career that lasted longer than most. He made his official debut at the age of 8! in 1924 and was active right up to the end of his life; a time span of 75 years! When he recorded the oldest item on this disc, the “Kreutzer” sonata, in 1934 he had a ten-year-career behind him. And he was far from a beginner in the recording studio either. At the age of 12 he set down, among other things, Novacek’s Perpetuum mobile and that recording, together with other juvenilia, is hopefully still available on Biddulph LAB 032. He recorded the Elgar concerto at 16 with the composer conducting. According to legend Elgar said to him after thirty bars’ rehearsal: “I can add nothing. It cannot be done better. You need not work on it any longer and let’s go to the races instead.”
So Yehudi – or Lord Menuhin as he became in due time – had a lot of experience when he entered EMI’s Studio 3 that November day in 1934 together with his 14-year-old sister to record the Kreutzer sonata, the most virtuosic of Beethoven’s ten sonatas. That there are two young musicians before the microphone is obvious from the outset. There is enthusiasm, intensity, risk-taking and that un-definable freshness that gradually disappears when you have played a piece a hundred times. There is beauty, there is technical assurance, the double-stops are executed to perfection, phrasing is excellent and it is just as impressive to hear the mature playing of sister Hephzibah. This was recorded in the very beginning of their partnership which lasted until her death in 1981 and it is interesting to compare this version to the one they made 25 years later, also for HMV. The sound is of course fuller but the interpretation is surprisingly little changed. Tempos are practically identical, the later version playing straight through a few seconds shorter per movement. The basic concept is also the same. What differs is that the middle-aged artists play with even more confidence, with the same intensity but with lighter accents which makes the sonata feel like an entity, more seamless. However the differences are marginal.
Yehudi Menuhin went on to make two more recordings of the Kreutzer with other pianists. In 1969 he recorded all the sonatas for DG with veteran Wilhelm Kempff and in 1979, back on EMI, he did it with his son Jeremy. I haven’t heard either of those, but they had good reviews when they were first issued. Both are still in the catalogues.
Returning to the thirties and the darker-hued C minor sonata, recorded four years after the Kreutzer, it is possible to hear that the teens have matured. The first movement is bold, the beautiful Adagio cantabile, one of Beethoven’s loveliest creations, glows with a hushed intensity and a warmth of tone in the violin that is quite exceptional. The scherzo whizzes along at a break-neck speed and feels rushed. Was there a need to get it onto a 78 side? The finale is powerful and all through the sonata one feels the rapport between the two players. This is duo music at its best. Listening to Sir Yehudi, as he was when recording this sonata with Kempff (he was knighted in 1965), we again notice differences, and here in his mid-fifties with Kempff approaching 75, the music-making has mellowed. The glow is there but it is as seen through a veil. Here also the tempo differences are noticeable. The outer movements are considerably slower in 1969 and considering the scherzo adding another forty seconds to the bare three minutes playing time in 1938, changes the whole composition. I don’t think it is inappropriate to label the later version as meditative. The slow movement is just as beautifully played in both versions and here the later recording is actually the faster.
As fillers we get the Beethoven G major Rondo played at a rollicking tempo, and Schubert’s too seldom heard Rondo brilliant, a quite substantial piece that is a perfect vehicle for the Menuhins. The playing is “brilliant”, to say the least.
No one with the slightest interest in good violin playing should hesitate to acquire this disc. The sonic limitations can easily be overlooked and honestly, when making my comparisons with the later recordings I was sometimes not even sure which one I was listening to. As a first and only recording of these sonatas you should perhaps get something more modern, but I am certain that this disc will give lots of pleasure for years to come."