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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Menuhin) (1932-1936)
By Jed Distler
The music of Bach was central to Yehudi Menuhins universe from the day of the very first lesson he received from Louis Persinger in San Francisco. Having disposed of the teaching part of the lesson fairly quickly, Persinger sat the five-year-old prodigy and his mother down and played them the Adagio from Bachs solo Sonata in G minor. It was his way of setting the standard at which Yehudi must aim, one that he remembered for the rest of his long life. When Yehudi was seven and the time came to learn a concerto, it was the Bach Concerto in E major that Persinger chose for him. Later Yehudi studied with two of the finest Bach players of the twentieth century, Adolf Busch and George Enescu; and so the purity of Bachs thinking, the spiritual ecstasy of his slower movements and the vigour of his faster rhythms were constant factors in the boys musical upbringing. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Menuhin was to set down an epoch-making series of recordings of Bachs music; and the Double Concerto in particular played an important rôle in his life. He would use it as a way of sealing a friendship with a fellow violinist or giving encouragement to a younger colleague, just as his own teacher George Enescu had encouraged him by playing the concerto with him in the early 1930s. Menuhin left countless live recordings of the work and played it in the studio with Gioconda de Vito and Christian Ferras, among others. His last recording as a violinist, made in 1992, was a performance of the Double Concerto with his pupil Alberto Lysy as partner. The version with Enescu reproduced here was made six decades earlier.
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 dAbernon, 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 Busch. From 1931 the family, supported by Yehudis earnings, established their home near Paris; and the following year he recorded the Elgar Concerto under the composers direction. A world tour in 1935 was followed by an eighteen-month sabbatical and then a disastrous first marriage: his determined parents Moshe and Marutha had not prepared him for real life. Many war-time 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 Menuhins later life was spent trying to reconcile his increasing musical mastery with his diminishing control over his instrument. The recordings here were made when he was at the peak of his technical powers.
The idea of recording Yehudi Menuhin in the Double Concerto with his teacher came from the Moshe Menuhin, who always had an eye towards publicity for his son. Early in September 1930 he wrote to Yehudis English record company, His Masters Voice, to suggest a collaboration in this work with Adolf Busch, with whom Yehudi had been studying in Basel since the summer of 1929. Fred Gaisberg passed on the suggestion to Busch, who was also on the HMV roster of artists, and suggested a session in May 1931, writing that the concerto should be a big sales proposition, but the great violinist felt it was too early for the boy to record this work and gently pointed out that he always put artistic considerations before commercial ones. George Enescu, to whom Yehudi returned in 1931, proved more accommodating to what Gaisberg freely admitted was a publicity stunt. Having given a concert performance of the concerto together in Paris in December 1931, with Pierre Monteux conducting the Paris Symphony Orchestra, Enescu and Yehudi made their famous recording in that city on 4th June 1932, with the same orchestra and conductor. The interpretation still sounds excellent today, in spite of an over-large orchestra, because Monteux keeps everything in trim and Enescus personality can be felt in every bar. It is sad to reflect that this was the last solo recording made by the Romanian violinist while he was still in his prime. The Violin Concertos in E major and A minor, recorded in 1933 and 1936 respectively, sound less convincing now, partly because Enescu is not in the class of Monteux as a conductor; the rhythms plod and the tempi in the two finales are too slow. Menuhin was to make infinitely better recordings of both works in 1958. These early efforts, however, are of interest as staging points in the progress of a great musician, and his playing, in itself, is often beautiful.
The encore to our disc has an interesting history. On the same day as the Double Concerto session, Menuhin recorded the so-called Mozart Seventh Concerto, K271a, with Enescu conducting. A filler was needed for the last 78rpm side and so Menuhin recorded the Andante from Bachs solo Sonata in A minor there and then. It is presented here as a good example of Menuhins Bach playing, not long after his sixteenth birthday. Four years later, he made a complete recording of the A minor Sonata but for some reason it was never issued on 78rpm discs. The Andante from that later recording was, however, substituted as the filler on post-1936 pressings of the spurious Mozart concerto.
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BACH, J.S.: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Menuhi...