For those who know Menuhin only through his late EMI stereo
recordings - characterized by scratchy, uningratiating tone
and variable intonation - these earlier records will give some
idea of what the fuss was originally about.
Menuhin offers a full-bodied reading of the concerto, a score
which, no doubt, was still considered "advanced" in
some quarters. The intensity with which he digs into the opening
paragraphs produces some rough edges. That the roughness is
a by-product of the soloist's interpretive choices, rather than
reflecting technical imperfection, becomes clear when Menuhin
lets up on the pressure for the second subject at 3:27, the
Menuhin's tuning is better than it would become on his stereo
recordings, but it's still distractingly erratic. The start
of the Andante tranquillo, for example, evokes an inward,
prayerful mood - the very opening briefly recalls Mahler's famous
Adagietto - but questionable tuning compromises the effect.
Conversely, he intones the interlude at 8:30 with a haunting
purity, and the effect is of lifting a scrim. Oddly, Menuhin
then sails through the faster, moto perpetuo writing
of the Allegro molto finale with little difficulty in
either tuning or execution.
Given Wilhelm Furtwängler's cult status in some quarters
as the embodiment of the German mystical tradition, his sympathy
for Bartók's more "horizontal" style may come as a
surprise. His limning of the lighter, more open textures is
especially attentive, leaving a clear path, as it were, for
his soloist. His dynamic first movement only turns heavy in
the brass interjections, which impede the motion rather than
driving it forward. In the Andante tranquillo, the conductor's
touch is evident in the expansive transparency of the strings'
entry at 1:10 and the lightness of the quick episode beginning
at 6:51; he shapes the accompaniments alertly in that finale.
Many conductors, with the help of modern recording techniques,
can draw comparable color from the orchestra part; few have
given every element of the texture so clear a sense of purpose.
With all due respect to Menuhin, who commissioned the sonata,
it's the accompaniment that draws one's attention there as well.
Adolph Baller uses soft-edged attacks and modulated dynamics
to weave liquid sonorities that attract the ear. Even when the
writing moves from scalar and arpeggiated patterns to block
chords, the sound remains translucent; the heavy punctuating
chords in the finale, which can tempt players into percussiveness
- or just plain banging - here are both emphatic and musical.
You rarely hear Bartók made - rather, permitted - to sound so
Mind you, the violinist is no slouch, either, with his tone
and his intonation both under better control than they would
be six years later for the concerto sessions. In the outer movements,
interest comes from the contrast between Baller's liquid sonorities
and the violin's more angular lines. As in the concerto, the
central slow movement - here an Adagio - affords Menuhin
the greatest expressive scope as he explores its variety of
The re-mastered monaural sound is surprisingly vivid. The violin
is balanced forward in the concerto, though not unduly so; the
balance between the instruments is more natural in the sonata.
Stephen Francis Vasta
see also review by Jonathan