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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No.2, BE 117 (1937-38) [37:29]
Violin Sonata No.1 (1921) [31:14]
Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Adolph Baller (piano)
rec. EMI Abbey Road, Studio No.1, September 1953 (Concerto) and RCA Studio No.2, NYC, December 1947 (sonata)
NAXOS 8.111336 [68:43]
Experience Classicsonline

Having just wrestled with EMI’s huge retrospective box set devoted to Menuhin, it’s something of a more considered pleasure to listen to Naxos’s more limited focus on his association with Bartók. The fact that Menuhin commissioned and gave the premiere of the Solo Sonata is one of the most notable acts of enlightened generosity he undertook in a career and life full of them. But on a more prosaic note, perhaps, he recorded a great deal of the composer’s works over the years. In his notes Colin Anderson mentions that there are seven surviving recordings of the Second Concerto, some naturally deriving from concert tapes. Three were with Doráti, dating from 1946 (Dallas), 1957 (Minneapolis) and 1965 (New Philharmonia), one is with Reiner, two with Ansermet and this 1953 account with Furtwängler with the Philharmonia in 1953.

As Anderson also points out Furtwängler had conducted for the composer in the world premiere of Bartók’s First Piano Concerto. He doesn’t go on to point out that he also performed the Concerto for Orchestra post-War, amongst other works, nor does he explore - why should he, but others can - the remark that Furtwängler made in his published Notebooks that Bartók possessed ‘an over abstract mind’. Whether this accurately summarises the conductor’s succinct if reductionist attitude it’s hard to say, but it probably relates more to his well known antipathy to much music of his time as to anything specifically ‘abstract’ about Bartók.

In any case I’ve never found this recording much use in uncoiling such matters. I much prefer Menuhin’s collaborations with Doráti who knew what was going on in the fabric of this score - and knew how to get it out. Too much here is too malleable and measured, too sanguine and reserved orchestrally. And Menuhin is on intermittently good form, far less tensile and tonally congruent than in that 1947 shellac set made in Dallas. The worst thing, though, is the actual recording. Menuhin was grossly over-recorded and the orchestra is deferential to such a degree that it really can be difficult to make out orchestral strands. Quite why such a miscalculation was sanctioned it’s difficult to say but the question of relative balance is not one that restoration engineers can do much about. It sounds as good as we can expect, which is not great.

The sonata however was recorded back in ’47 in New York with Adolf Baller, who often worked with Menuhin. Surviving examples of Menuhin’s way with this work have largely been with sister Hephzibah - 1957, a BBC recital from 1961, Moscow the following year; there’s a recording with Jeremy Menuhin from 1981 - but this early example is as fine as any. Here we feel the full force of the Menuhin tone and the estimable Baller keeps him fervent company; the whole recording and performance stand as eloquent rebukes to the later concerto recording. Everything that is wrong there was right in New York. This is the place to go to appreciate Menuhin’s understanding of Bartók’s grammar.

Jonathan Woolf




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