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ClassicsOnline Home » BARTOK, B.: Violin Concerto No. 2 / Violin Sonata No. 1 (Menuhin) (1947, 1953)
Yehudi Menuhin commissioned and gave the first performance of Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin and was an influential advocate of his music. This 1947 recording of the First Violin Sonata finds Menuhin in particularly intense and vivid form, his accomplishment equaled by Adolph Baller’s virtuosity and perceptive musicianship. Of the four studio recordings Menuhin made of the composer’s Second Violin Concerto, this 1953 rendition, while perhaps not flawless, certainly remains an unusually truthful and penetrating account of one of the twentieth century’s most magnificent, challenging and emotionally satisfying violin concertos.
By David Denton
Yehudi Menuhin (1916–1999)
Béla Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2 • Violin Sonata No. 1
‘The violin, through the serene clarity of its song, helps to keep our bearings in the storm, as a light in the night, a compass in the tempest, it shows us a way to a haven of sincerity and respect.’ Those are the words of Yehudi Menuhin. He was born on 22 April 1916 in New York, to Russian-Jewish parents, and died in Berlin on 12 March 1999 at the age of 82. Menuhin was world-famous not only as a violinist but also as a humanitarian, a quality that informs his playing, and teacher (the Yehudi Menuhin School was established in the early 1960s). He was also an Ambassador of Goodwill, an appointment made by UNESCO, in 1992, the recipient of many international honours, and he made copious recordings, as a conductor as well as a violinist, and wrote an autobiography, Unfinished Journey. Menuhin became a British citizen in 1985 and having earlier been awarded a KBE was now able to be termed Sir Yehudi. He was subsequently created a life peer, taking the title of Lord Menuhin of Stoke d’Abernon, the location of the Menuhin School. Although classical music was at the centre of his activities, he took an interest in Indian music, collaborating with Ravi Shankar, and in jazz, with Stephane Grappelli, and even made a cameo appearance in The Morecambe & Wise Show in the 1970s.
Musical prowess in the Menuhin household was not exclusive to young Yehudi. His sisters Hephzibah and Yaltah, born in 1920 and 1921, respectively, became pianists, as, in turn, did one of Yehudi’s own children, Jeremy, who was born in 1951. In 1918, however, when Yehudi was two years old, the Menuhin family had moved from New York to San Francisco. Yehudi was deemed a child prodigy and began violin lessons in the early 1920s, first with Sigmund Anker and then with Louis Persinger. He took part in his first concert, with Persinger at the piano, as early as 1924 (‘When I began it was pure instinct. I had the knack, the gift, the will…I was, in some ways, the pupil of Persinger’s abandoned dreams.’). The following year he gave his first full-length recital, again with Persinger and again in San Francisco, and in 1926 he played in New York. In Paris in 1927 he tackled Tchaikovsky’s Concerto and Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, with Paul Paray conducting, and began studies there with the Romanian-born violinist, composer and conductor George Enesco (1881–1955). 1927 also brought Yehudi Menuhin’s first appearance in Carnegie Hall, New York, with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Fritz Busch conducting. 1928 found Menuhin making his first recordings, for RCA Victor, and also undertaking a tour of the United States, although only now was he on the verge of becoming a teenager. His Berlin concert début, in 1929, with the conductor Bruno Walter, included not only Beethoven’s Concerto but also Brahms’s as well as a concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Having worked with Fritz Busch in New York, Menuhin now went to study with his violinist-brother, Adolf. ‘Without him’, said Menuhin, ‘I would not have been able to understand and penetrate the spirit and heart of that music of mists and forests, of drama and contained passion.’ In 1931, Menuhin made his début in London, again with Fritz Busch conducting, and also recorded for HMV as well as making his first concerto recording, Max Bruch’s Concerto No. 1, with the conductor Sir Landon Ronald. Only about eight months later, in July 1932, he returned to the London Symphony Orchestra to make one of the most famous and enduring of all recordings, of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, with the composer himself conducting. (The Bruch and Elgar recordings are coupled on Naxos 8.110902.) Elgar said to Delius: ‘The way that boy plays my concerto is amazing.’ In 1935 Menuhin undertook a tour of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Europe, giving 110 concerts in 72 cities; such an arduous schedule was followed by an eighteen-month sabbatical.
It was in 1943 that Menuhin first met the Hungarian-born composer and pianist Béla Bartók, one of the greatest composers of the last century, who ended his days an émigré in America, where he died from leukaemia in 1945. Menuhin played for Bartók and also commissioned the Sonata for Solo Violin, of which Menuhin would give the première the following year with the composer present, and later record. Numerous recordings document Menuhin’s strong association with Bartók and his music, not least of the two major works on this release. There are actually seven Menuhin recorded accounts of Violin Concerto No. 2 , including concert tapes that have been issued on compact disc, two conducted by Ernest Ansermet, and the other by Fritz Reiner. Of the four studio versions that Menuhin himself approved for release, three of them, dating from 1946, 1957 and 1965, are conducted by Antal Doráti. The fourth is the one included here, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886–1954).
Violin Concerto No. 2 (1937–38) was composed for and dedicated to Bartók’s friend and fellow-Hungarian Zoltán Székely (1903–2001). It is in three extensive movements, and, typically of this composer, the music is wide-ranging, passionate and atmospheric, as well as being hyper-scrupulous in its notation. Although one might sometimes find Menuhin’s tone lacking the last degree of fullness and his intonation not the most exacting, his instinct for, and devotion to, Bartók’s music is evident throughout and he brings out the composer’s heartfelt and fiery writing. Furthermore, that Menuhin and Furtwängler were working together was indicative of a continuing ‘thaw’ in these musicians’ relationship, which had been healed as late as 1947, when they recorded Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (Naxos 8.110996). Before World War II and, of course, during it, when Menuhin gave over 500 concerts for Allied troops, he had refused to work with Furtwängler owing to his alleged Nazi sympathies, of which Furtwängler was later exonerated.
If Furtwängler is not particularly associated with Bartók’s music, although in 1927 he had conducted the première of Piano Concerto No. 1, with the composer as soloist, his conducting of the complex and rhythmically tricky orchestral writing in Violin Concerto No. 2 leaves little to be desired. In 1953 the Philharmonia Orchestra, not yet a decade old, having been formed by entrepreneur and record-producer Walter Legge, provides a virtuoso and considered response to its distinguished guest-conductor and his own intense partnership with Menuhin, in this the violinist’s second recording of music that he was already so experienced in. This remains, if not a flawless performance, an unusually truthful and penetrating one, with a palpable collaborative tension to sustain the length of 38 minutes.
Recorded shortly after Christmas Day 1947, Menuhin and Adolph Baller’s recording of Violin Sonata No. 1, an earlier example of Bartók’s genius, from 1921, stands as a supreme achievement. Indeed, miraculous, given Baller’s particular circumstances. Polish-born Baller (1909–94), who was studying the piano from the age of eight in Vienna and appearing with the august Vienna Philharmonic as early as 1920, became Menuhin’s regular accompanist during World War II and for several years after it. Prior to that conflict—and this would be ignominious for anyone, let alone a concert pianist—Baller had had all his fingers broken, seemingly as much for being a pianist as for being Jewish, when he was interned by the Nazis following the 1938 Anschluss. Fortunately Baller’s injuries became fully healed and he was able to flee to America that year, after getting married in Budapest.
It is Baller’s impressionistic waves of sound that open this revealing account of the Sonata, an ambitious three-movement work that finds Menuhin in particularly intense and vivid form, bringing to life music that can seem loosely constructed and thorny. It emerges here not only as glowingly communicative, suitably impassioned in the first movement, sorrowful in the slow one, and thrilling in the heady abandon of the finale, but also, thanks to a well-balanced recording and Baller’s equally perceptive musicianship, as a Sonata for Violin and Piano, the pianist’s virtuosity giving no clue as to the injuries he had suffered from the Nazis but proving an indefatigable partner to Menuhin’s dedication.
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