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Great Violinists: Yehudi Menuhin
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major Op. 78 (1878-79)
Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor Op. 108 (1886-88)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Violin Sonata No. 2 in D minor Op. 121 (1851)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
Hephzibah Menuhin (piano)
Recorded London, Australia and Paris, 1934-40 [but see text below]
NAXOS 8.110771 [74.42]


This latest entrant in the ‘Great Violinists’ series from Naxos comes into competition with Biddulph’s tribute to Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin, which I reviewed on this site not so long ago. That was a double set which in addition to the two Brahms sonatas on this disc, added three Beethoven sonatas (Op. 30/2, Op. 47 the Kreutzer and Op.96), some single movements and the Bach Violin Sonata No. 3 BWV 1016. This one includes Schumann’s Op. 121. There’s another kind of competition as well since both the Naxos and the Biddulph are the work of Ward Marston.

I’d refer readers to that earlier review for some specifics of the Brahms; tonally seductive performances with excellent ensemble work and showing some signs of technical frailties (Op. 78) - but see below for a caveat. At the time of the earliest of these recordings, the Schumann in 1934, Yehudi was eighteen and his sister fourteen. His teacher Enescu and others feared the whole thing might be considered a stunt and in Menuhin’s autobiography he relates how they made their debut proper in the recording studios. They only emerged on stage in Paris in October 1934 (this Schumann set was recorded in Paris in May and July of that year a few scant months after their sonata duo was established). Even so Menuhin’s bewitching, sometimes meaty vibrato is fully in evidence as are his abundant portamenti and charismatic phraseology. Compared with one of Menuhin’s mentors, Adolf Busch, whose live performance has been collated on a Music and Arts set we can sense the younger violinist’s occasional shortcomings in terms of thematic understanding but his impetuousness – he shaves getting on for a minute off Busch’s timings for the first movement – is undeniable. No less is the fine tempo for the finale, which drives ahead with real excitement.

The choice between Biddulph (a twofer) and Naxos will depend on one’s wallet and one’s interest in repertoire. I would add that Ward Marston has clearly worked on the transfers again. That said I’m confused about Op. 108. It’s claimed as the 1936 recording (HMV DB2832/4) and sounds broadly similar to it but I think it’s actually the 1947 remake that the Menuhins made; Naxos cite DB6441/43 as the source of the material but claim that as the July 1936 recording; it’s not, it’s the 1947. And this might account for the slightly different tempi the Menuhins adopt, most marked in the outer movements. The Naxos performance doesn’t have quite the tonal bloom of the Biddulph but it does have a slightly greater degree of phrasal sophistication and is not quite so italicised and occasionally rigid and I’m convinced they’ve included the "wrong" performance.

Jonathan Woolf


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