> BEETHOVEN Violin concerto menuhin CDE5749732 [CH]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D, op. 61 (1), Romance no. 1 in G, op. 40, Romance no. 2 in F, op. 50 (2)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Constantin Silvestri (1), Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Pritchard (2)
Recorded November 1960, Musikvereinsaal, Vienna (1),
November and December 1961, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (2)
EMI CLASSICS CDE 5 74973 2 [61’11"]


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I encountered the F major Romance in a curious Menuhin compilation not long ago and remarked that the Viennese classical masters must have written their music all along in the knowledge that one day Menuhin would arrive to play it with this pure, noble tone, simple yet somehow pregnant with spiritual feeling. This Romance is the highlight of the disc, at least for me. The G major Romance starts with a slight disagreement with the conductor over the tempo and remains a little heavy in effect. Is F major more suited to Menuhin’s spiritual depths than the brighter G major? I now feel I must give voice to a question which I was prepared to set aside during the F major. Though all performances known to me adopt tempi similar to those here, they are Romances not Meditations, they were fairly early pieces written for an Italian violinist and in both cases Beethoven’s time signature is 2/2 not 4/4. Do they really have to be so slow? The problem is that, while in the melodic moments you can get away with it, especially if you have a tone like Menuhin’s, there are many moments where the violinist is compelled to play simple scale passages fairly slowly and try to give them a meaning when perhaps they are only intended to be thrown off brilliantly. I know Menuhin could make a spiritual journey of the scale of C major, but all the same enough is enough, especially if you have the two together, and I’d dearly like to hear some violinist reassess the whole approach.

Another movement that is often taken at a funereal pace is the first movement of the violin concerto. It’s true that Beethoven wrote "Allegro ma non troppo", and this time the time signature is 4/4 not 2/2. However, Menuhin would appear to agree that a certain mobility and impetuousness, more than we generally hear today, is required. The conductor seems less convinced.

There have been some odd concerto partnerships over the years, a fair amount of them from EMI. Constantin Silvestri (1913-1969) was a Romanian conductor noted for his virtuoso control of the orchestra and a freely rhapsodic style of interpretation deriving from a wide palette of orchestral colours. Thus far he may seem to resemble his compatriot Sergiu Celibidache; however, in comparison with that wayward giant, his art, however brilliant, lay on the surface and I never heard it suggested that any deep spiritual qualities lay behind it. His major achievement may have been, more than his actual performances, his work with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra which he raised to international heights, creating a domino effect among the British provincial orchestras by his demonstration that good orchestral standards were not limited to London. He was not noted for his Beethoven and so, on the face of it, there seemed little point in carting Menuhin to Vienna to have him play under a conductor who was not likely to bring out the unique qualities of the orchestra. At around the same time Menuhin recorded a Brahms concerto in Berlin under Rudolf Kempe. Surely this conductor, or Carl Schuricht, who recorded for EMI in the 1960s in Vienna, would have been more inspired choices. Or else stay in London and do it with Klemperer, Boult or Barbirolli (only six years later he recorded the work with Klemperer and the New Philharmonia).

Still, Silvestri was a fine musician and the opening tutti goes with a certain majestic dignity. Menuhin’s tone as recorded in Vienna seems more brilliant than in the Romances and he also quite often plays sharp. At times this is enough to raise eyebrows – take the exchanges with the clarinet at the beginning of the Larghetto – at others it is barely perceptible. It contributes to the impression that he was in an impetuous frame of mind, for the passage-work which many – signally Menuhin himself on other occasions – invest with much inner meaning, is made passionately exciting. All this means that Menuhin moves Silvestri’s tempo on, sometimes considerably. So the tempi swing back and forth between them until, in the later stages of the development, Silvestri realises he isn’t going to get it his way and starts to collaborate. Beginning perhaps from the famous G minor episode, which is serene yet still mobile, there is much fine work here.

In the slow movement Menuhin seems again restless at the beginning, but this time it is he who settles into Silvestri’s warmly romantic backdrop. Again, the later stages of the movement are the best, with a deeply felt, expressively inflected yet still mobile interpretation of the "sul G e D" variation.

In the finale it is the violinist who gives the tempo, yet Menuhin himself often seems to want to move away from the relatively grave enunciation of the rondo theme, to which he always returns. As the years went on (I am remembering a performance in Edinburgh in about 1974) his enunciation of the rondo theme got graver and graver, while his tendency to run away with the passage work in this movement got more pronounced too. Here the process is only just beginning and this is perhaps the most successful movement.

This performance is undoubtedly the work of a great violinist, but is not quite a great performance. If you can’t take the "historical" sound of the versions he made with Furtwängler (Lucerne Festival Orchestra 1947, Philharmonia 1953) and if you find Klemperer a rather coldly magisterial partner, you might try this, certainly in preference to the 1981 version with Kurt Masur (Leipzig Gewandhaus) which documents his more problematic later years. Apart from various bootleg editions which have been around, one official live performance has entered the lists – that conducted by his fellow violinist David Oistrakh (1963 with the Moscow Philharmonic in London, on BBC Legends) . But part of the fascination of Menuhin was his combination of spirituality and fallibility, and to that extent all his recordings are essential.
Christopher Howell

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