Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No 2 (1938) [37:29]
Sonata No 1 for Violin and Piano (1921) [31:14]
Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Adolph Baller (piano)
rec. EMI Abbey Road Studio No 1, London, September 1953 (concerto) RCA Studio No 2, New York, September 1947 (sonata)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111336 [68:43]

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 tone soars.

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 beautiful.

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 moods.

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 Woolf

This will give some idea of what the Menuhin fuss was originally about.