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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in D minor (1822) [23:28] (1), Violin Concerto in E minor op.64 (1844) [27:15] (2)
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)

Violin Concerto no.1 in G minor op.26 (1867) [22:47] (3)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), RCA Victor String Orchestra (1), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler (2), Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch (3)
Recorded 6th February 1952 in New York (1), 25th-26th May 1952 in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin (2), 19th January 1951 in the Symphony Hall, Boston (3)
CD transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.110991 [73:31]

 

The thirteen-year-old Mendelssohnís Violin Concerto in D minor remained unknown until a dealer in rare musical scores and books showed the manuscript to Yehudi Menuhin in 1951. The violinist bought it, edited the first published edition, gave the first modern performance in New York on 4th February 1952 and made the first record two days later. This was also his first appearance on disc as violinist-conductor. In the United States the recording was issued on LP coupled with the present version of the E minor Violin Concerto under Furtwängler, but the reciprocal arrangement between RCA Victor and HMV was breaking down and so, rather than wrestle with contractual problems, HMV simply set down the work again in London for the British market, on 2nd April 1953, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting. Towards the end of his career Menuhin made a further coupling of the two Mendelssohn Concertos under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. Tully Potter points out that the New York recording has remained virtually unknown in the UK; not that the version under Boult has suffered from over-exposure over the last few decades and I, personally, was unaware of it.

Some of Mendelssohnís early works already bear the stamp of genius and contain many of the hallmarks of the mature composer. Not, I think, this one, which after several hearings only engages me in the jolly if slightly trite finale. The performance has all Menuhinís classical virtues though I did wonder, in the slow movement, if a conductor better able to obtain long-term phrasing (such as Boult) might have helped present the music in stronger light.

The Furtwängler collaboration has already been reviewed by me in EMIís own transfer in the Great Recordings of the Century series (coupled with the Beethoven/Philharmonia/Furtwängler). Indeed, the information I have given in this review comes partly from Tully Potterís notes for Naxos but also from those by Alan Sanders for the EMI issue.

It is interesting to find that the same performance lasts six seconds longer in the Naxos transfer. While recognizing that this may also stem from certain production decisions such as how much space to leave at the beginning and end of the work, the Naxos appears to play at a very marginally lower pitch than the EMI. Having crossed swords with Mark Obert-Thorn over the correct pitch of the Callas/De Sabata Tosca I must say that I havenít tested either recording with pitch-detecting equipment and even if I had I could not be sure of the exact pitch used in Berlin in 1952. What is more significant is that the performance has a slightly different effect in the two versions. There is certainly more space around the orchestra in the EMI transfer, which would have had access to the original tapes, while the Naxos is more contained between the two speakers. Furthermore, Menuhinís tone chez EMI has a silvery quality, and is a touch fierce at times, while as heard on Naxos it is richer in lower harmonics. Itís a bit like the difference between a pure soprano and a soprano with a touch of the mezzo in her timbre.

Well, hereís a pretty kettle of fish. We know that the same artist tends to sound different as he passes from one recording company to another (e.g. Karajan with EMI, Decca and DG). But here we have the same performance in which the artist is made to sound different. It is as though a man is placed in the middle of a hall of mirrors, each very slightly concave or very slightly convex, not to the extent that the distortion is obvious or even instantly detectible, yet each image contains its own mixture of truth and falsity. As one who heard Menuhin live only in the 1970s when he was past his best, how can I know which of the sound-images is true, which is false? The answer is, I canít. I can say that the performance as heard on EMI seems to take wing rather more, while as presented by Naxos it is impressively serious. But on the other hand, even before I got out the comparisons I found myself disagreeing with Tully Potterís comment that "the Berlin Philharmonic is here at its dourest" and the "Furtwängler did not have what it took to be a great accompanist", for this type of rich-toned, fervent performance is just what Mendelssohn needs if his music is to be rescued from the suggestion of spick-and-span superficiality which has dogged it over the years.

Still, I suppose the general recommendation for a Menuhin recording of the Mendelssohn will be the 1958 version under Efrem Kurtz, where the violinistís tone could be caught by early stereo techniques and the later failings of his own playing were not yet evident. And, if the present recording is not Menuhinís best Mendelssohn, it is not Furtwänglerís either, for the following month he directed it again in Turin with a violinist whose passionate spontaneity invariably threw off sparks in him Ė Gioconda De Vito. This performance lasts about three minutes longer, which is all the more remarkable when the last movement is faster Ė after a slightly portentous opening De Vito takes Furtwängler for a ride in which he is apparently happy to partake. Above all, however, her romantic temperament results in a long-drawn slow movement replete with all that twilight glow of which Furtwängler was the supreme master. I only know this through a crumbly off-the-air tape Ė I donít know whether it can be made to sound any better.

Maybe, though, the difference is not so much between Furtwängler/Menuhin and Furtwängler/De Vito as between Furtwängler in the studio and Furtwängler live. As we well know, his live performances took wing in a way that even the best of his studio performances did not, and it is curious to recollect that we know his collaboration with De Vito only through live performances, while we know his collaboration with Menuhin only through studio recordings. When so much has fortuitously survived, does anything remain of the two Mendelssohn performances in Berlin which preceded this recording? Or the Beethoven performance given that same evening? Or any other live performance with Menuhin?

The performance of the Bruch presented here was Menuhinís only collaboration on disc with Charles Munch. A big-boned performance might have been expected with Munch at the helm and so it proves, too much so for Tully Potter, who feels there is "a certain amount of straining after effect". Since Munchís performances of Mendelssohn were not of the airy-fairy kind it is not surprising that he treated the Bruch as a full-scale romantic, with a passionate climax towards the end of the first movement and a finale which, though buoyant, is sufficiently steady for the big romantic tune to emerge naturally. Later, in his first stereo recording under Walter Susskind, Menuhin extended the slow movement by some 45 seconds while the conductor teased out the inner parts; the music is made to sound like Elgar, movingly introvert while Munch goes in for longer paragraphs. It would be interesting to know if American listeners have always shared the British preference for the Süsskind version (which of course benefits from a stereo recording) over that under Munch. Menuhinís last version, under Boult, was coupled with Bruchís rare Second Concerto but perhaps found both artists past their peak.

For Menuhin aficionados these long-unavailable recordings of the Mendelssohn D minor and the Bruch will be self-recommending; less specialized collectors should perhaps go for the EMI transfer of the Mendelssohn, coupled with a sublime version of the Beethoven, and the Mendelssohn/Bruch pairing under Kurtz and Süsskind.

Christopher Howell

see aslo reviews by Em Marshall and Jonathan Woolf

 



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