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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Double concerto in A minor, op.102 (1887) [33:48]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Triple concerto in C major, op.56 (1808) [34:31]
Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
Maurice Gendron (cello)
Hephzibah Menuhin (piano) [Beethoven]
London Symphony Orchestra/István Kertész
rec. Colston Hall, Bristol, UK, 10 June 1964. ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL4252-2 [68:30]
 

 

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If you’ve passed through Bristol city centre lately, you may have spotted a colourful addition to its generally pretty drab architecture – for the city’s main concert venue, the Colston Hall, now sports a nearly-completed new foyer area with its exterior walls kitted out in strikingly eye-catching copper cladding (recycled, of course: Bristol’s a very PC city).
 

Perhaps it is only right that the building at last displays a much more assertive, “in your face” attitude to the outside world, for its interior space has long been held to have one of the finest concert hall acoustics in the country.  Not, though, that you could possibly have guessed that to have been the case if you’d tuned in to what I presume to have been the BBC’s Third Programme - shortly to be transformed, not necessarily to universal delight, into BBC Radio 3 - in the summer of 1964. 

The Corporation’s long-recognised expertise in recording has been demonstrated consistently in many previous BBC Legends releases.    I cannot help but feel, though, that at this concert – given as part of the 1964 Bath Festival - the engineering team was having something of an off day.  Had they perhaps missed the scheduled service from London Paddington and not had time to run a test during the afternoon rehearsal?  Was there some sort of technical glitch?  Whatever the cause, the quality of the sound is initially disappointing – dull, sub-fusc, almost as though there’s something of a physical barrier between us and the orchestra, so that Brahms’s grab-you-by-the-scruff-of-your-neck opening doesn’t make its usual characteristically dramatic impact.  Admittedly, by the end of the opening movement the sound definitely becomes more immediate and “real”; maybe a mis-set dial or fader was, in the meantime, given a gentle tweak? It remains so throughout the rest of the Brahms and the first two movements of the Beethoven.  But then, at least on my copy of the disc, at about 2:06 into the finale of the Triple Concerto, the sound suddenly drops out, rather as though someone had put a sponge around the microphone.  This is unacceptable and, if the fault could not have been corrected, some mention ought at least to have been made, on the rear cover perhaps, to warn prospective purchasers. 

Unfortunately, even putting the issue of the sound to one side, this was an essentially unmemorable concert with none of the artists in tip-top form.  At this stage of Yehudi Menuhin’s career, as he himself was to ruefully admit, the characteristic technique of his early years was no longer at his disposal – “Intuition was no longer to be relied on; the intellect would have to replace it.”  For that and other reasons, by the mid-1960s his focus had shifted somewhat away from his solo career. His duties as artistic director of the Bath Festival (1959-1968) were taking up much of his time, as was his newly-established music school at Stoke D’Abernon in Surrey and in the public mind he was, in any case, no longer simply a violinist but a multi-faceted persona or, as a marketing man today might put it, a “brand”.  Musician, philosopher, advocate of causes ranging from meditation to the United Nations, by this time of his life Menuhin was considered something of a national treasure and an altogether “good thing”. It was at about this time, in 1965, that he received an honorary UK knighthood. 

For whatever reason, Menuhin, with his rather reticent playing, makes less of an impression on this disc than Gendron.  It may be a quirk of the microphone placement, but, in the Brahms, the cello is certainly the predominant voice of the two.  Though they performed together quite frequently at this time, Menuhin and Gendron don’t seem to gel as intimately as, say, my own favourite pairing Oistrakh and Rostropovich: a May 1969 recording with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra is an EMI Great Recording of the Century on 7243 5 66902 2 6. There is also an earlier live October 1965 Royal Albert Hall performance with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under Kyrill Kondrashin on BBC Legends BBCL 4197-2 – the occasion was also filmed and is available on DVD as EMI Classic Archive DVB 4904499.  The Russians invariably play as one with a magical sense of knowing exactly what the others will do next - and then challenging themselves to do more.  They also play as if their lives depended on it - although, having been trained in Stalinist times, perhaps that had, at one point, been literally true.  Menuhin and Gendron, by contrast, seem merely to be going through the motions. 

The less often heard Beethoven Triple Concerto sees the two soloists joined by Menuhin’s sister Hephzibah, a frequent collaborator at the time.  She appears to enthuse and energise her partners rather more, and this is, consequently, the more enjoyable performance with the three soloists revelling in their musical exchanges rather as if they were playing a chamber piece. 

István Kertész directs the London Symphony Orchestra effectively, as one might have guessed, but is unable to make these essentially run-of-the-mill performances catch fire.  That, coupled with the already mentioned reservations about the recording, will make this disc, for most collectors, something of a non-starter. 

Rob Maynard





 


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