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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in D minor (1822) [23.28]
RCA Victor String Orchestra, recorded New York, 1952
Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64 (1844) [27.15]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler, recorded Berlin 1952
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)

Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor Op.26 (1867) [22.47]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch, recorded Boston 1951
Yehudi Menuhin (violin) with accompaniments as above
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110991 [73.31]

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It’s the standard coupling with a slight difference. Recorded in 1951 and 1952 the most well-known of the trio of recordings is Menuhin’s 1952 Berlin traversal with Furtwängler of the Mendelssohn E minor. The D minor Concerto and the Bruch G minor were New York and Boston recordings that, for one reason or another, have not rested as highly in the canon of the violinist’s discography as have others he made of the same works. This has its advantages. The early Mendelssohn recording hasn’t been reissued anywhere in any format and the Boston Bruch, according to the notes, hasn’t been reissued for several decades. So in a sense this is both artist- and recording- centred in its scope and will give Menuhin admirers the opportunity to acquaint themselves with some of his two more intractable and invisible recordings from the early 1950s. This was incidentally a time – as Biddulph’s rare Japanese tour recordings show – when he was on markedly fine form. Very little on Naxos’s disc contradicts that impression.

The New York D minor was recorded two days after Menuhin had given the world premiere. The RCA Victor recording is blatant, unsubtle and up-front but we can bear with that in the interests of hearing the lyric curve of this self-directed performance. There’s plenty of fabled tone here and no sign of any incipient left or right hand frailties; he even manages to ride over the more turgid sequential passages with a fair degree of panache. Greatest weight is reserved for tiny little inflexions in the slow movement – affectionately done – with some moments for some of the small accompanying group to shine as well. The finale goes with fine lift, as well, though the shrill sound rather militates against it in the end.

The E minor also suffered from an indifferent recording setup. Listen to the first minute and a half and you’ll hear a weird fade-in and fade-out effect in the tuttis, as producer Mark Obert-Thorn notes – and then you’ll hear it throughout, a sort of swimmy sound. Whilst sleeve note writer Tully Potter castigates the conductor and reprises a number of his bon mots concerning the alleged inferiority of Menuhin’s 1930s recordings, the performance is not at all bad. It fuses sweetness with a certain degree of lyric toughness and there’s a certain sinewy quality that stays in the mind. They take a reasonable, un-pressing tempo for the finale – unshowy and firmly musical. The 1984 EMI transfer of this, coupled with the Beethoven, was the first CD I ever bought and led to a mini-breakdown as I listened in despair to the wretched orchestral sound. Obert-Thorn can’t work miracles and the problems are inherent – but perhaps I’ve accustomed myself to the recording now. It is still problematic but it’s the price you must pay to hear the two in consort.

Menuhin made five studio recordings of the Bruch G minor. I don’t find him declamatory enough in the first movement – not a fault of the recording – but there are plenty of characteristic moments along the way. He relies more on palette than power in this recording with Munch. Strangely the Boston Symphony can sound perfunctory in the opening movement and Menuhin’s own warm-heartedness is somewhat subdued here – that extrovert romanticism is sometimes missing. It reappears in the slow movement, reminding one of Ernest Newman’s comments on Menuhin’s playing of Elgar’s concerto – "purring like one of Max Bruch’s pussycats" – when Newman accused the boy of too-luscious playing. This is ripe and warm playing if occasionally it doesn’t quite flow rhythmically. The finale is full of big heart and tone but the final bars are a let down. Munch was a noted ex fiddler and I’m surprised by his accompanying – less than his usual gold standard.

So an interesting, if difficult, disc to review. For Menuhin’s admirers the retrieval of these overlooked recordings is a boon. The sound is problematic but the transfers are very reasonable in the circumstances. Others should note that Menuhin made superior recordings of both the E minor and the Bruch.

Jonathan Woolf


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