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Béla BARTÓK (1881—1945)
Yehudi Menuhin, violin and viola
Violin Concerto No. 1, BB 48a (1907—8)
Viola Concerto, BB 128(1945) (ed. Tibor Serly)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Antal Dorati
Rhapsody No. 1 for violin and orchestra. BB 94b (1928—9)
Rhapsody No. 2 for violin and orchestra, BB 96b (1928, rev. 1935)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
Violin Concerto No.2, BE 117 (1937—8)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Antal Dorati
Six movements from 44 Duos for two violins, BB 104 (1931): Sorrow; New Year’s Greeting; Harvest Song; Bagpipes; Scherzo; Arabian Song
Yehudi Menuhin and Nell Gotkovsky, violins
Sonata for solo violin, BR 124 (1944)
Recorded: 1965 (Violin Concertos), 1966 (Viola Concerto),Kingsway Hall, London;1965 (Duos), 1968 (Rhapsodies), 1974, 1975 (Sonata), Abbey Road Studios, London
EMI CLASSICS 7243 585487 2 [67:28 + 72:46]

The cover of the CD box bears the word ‘BARTÓK’ in large letters and underneath in much smaller letters: "Yehudi Menuhin". In marketing terms it would, I think, be justifiable to turn that on its head and call the package, "Yehudi Menuhin plays Bartók". After all, what we have here is a substantial collection of violin music, all played by an artist who had a special relationship with the composer. Some people may wish to buy the discs for performances of a special authority that could be said to be a fruit of that relationship.

Bartók benefited from Menuhin’s championing of his violin music before the war, especially in the United States. For example, the violinist was one of the first to take up the Second Violin Concerto. The composer admired Menuhin’s playing so much that he readily agreed to write an unaccompanied sonata for him. It was completed in 1944 shortly before his death. There are some people who regard this work as one of the masterpieces of the mid 20th century - in any genre. I remember hearing Menuhin say in a TV interview that, in purely technical terms, he never really improved after the age of sixteen. But there have been some reports that Bartók’s sonata was so technically challenging that it gave its dedicatee some anxieties that he may not have been too happy to own up to. It is tempting to think that Menuhin was forced to raise his game. Maybe Bartók was shrewd enough to see the dangers of a youngish violinist beginning to rest on his laurels and his talent, and was giving him a little kick. After all, I also remember Menuhin saying that, as his career progressed, he did less and less practice.

The recording we have here of the Sonata was made in the 1970s, twenty seven years after Menuhin first recorded the work. All the other recordings were earlier – mostly from the 1960s. It is an impressive package – both Violin Concertos, Rhapsodies, the (unfinished) Viola Concerto and half a dozen of the Duos (he wrote 44 altogether) for which he is joined by Nell Gotkovsky, as well as the solo Sonata. If your CD collection is a little short of Bartók then this EMI presentation could be a very cost-effective way of giving it a substantial boost. On the whole the recordings, averaging nearly forty years old, sound well. The performances are clearly of special historic significance through the Bartók /Menuhin connection but they are very fine in their own right. Both orchestras represented, the New Philharmonia and the BBCSO, are in excellent form and are in the hands of two exceptional conductors – Dorati and Boulez, both huge admirers of Bartók’s music.

Dorati and Menuhin had a special affinity, recording the Second Violin Concerto together three times. Menuhin also recorded the work with Furtwängler but Dorati definitely has the edge, coaxing more zip and commitment from the New Philharmonia than did Furtwängler with the same orchestra in its earlier incarnation as the Philharmonia. Dorati also helps supply the necessary passion required for the more youthful First Concerto, perfectly blending with Menuhin in a performance that conveys the emotion with a power that never goes over the top. This is one of those works that could only have been born out of a painfully passionate relationship. In this case the short-lived one that Bartók had with the talented violinist Stefi Geyer in 1907. By the time he finished the work they had broken up but he gave it to her anyway. She never played it. In 1919 she went off to live in Switzerland with the manuscript in a suitcase where it was found after her death. So the performance we have here was recorded only seven years after the premiere which was in 1958. Menuhin’s performance, never overdoing the emotion nor indulging virtuosity for effect, is a good example of that quality of his – usually described as "integrity". It is tempting to speculate what the forty-nine old Menuhin might have made of this 1908 work should it have been available in his teens when his playing was frequently described as "passionate and spontaneous". Notwithstanding, there is passion enough in this performance.

The unfinished Viola Concerto is more the work of Bartók’s former pupil, Tibor Serly, than it is of the composer, but it gives us a chance to hear Menuhin on an instrument that he was keen play on occasions. Incidentally, I only heard him play live twice, and one of the performances was of a major viola work: Berlioz’s Harold in Italy.

So this EMI package is an irresistible bargain that presents a range of Bartók’s work from the folk-influenced Duos, to chamber and orchestral masterpieces. It brings together one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers with one of its leading peforming artists in renderings of unmatched authority.

John Leeman

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