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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major Op.78 [29:05]
Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major Op.100 [19:38]
Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor Op.108 [21:51]
Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
Louis Kentner (piano)
rec. EMI Studio No. 3, Abbey Road, London, 10 September 1956 (Op.78); 13 September 1957 (Op.100); 16 August 1957 (Op.108)

A few weeks ago I reviewed a two-CD set of the Bach Violin Sonatas played by Yehudi Menuhin and accompanied by George Malcolm (harpsichord) with Ambrose Gauntlett (viola da gamba). The release was issued by the French label Forgotten Records (FR753/4). Despite the exceptional quality of the music-making, that 1961 recording had been repeatedly overlooked by EMI and had never seen the light of day on CD. At the end of the review I issued a plea for Alain Degeurnel’s label to reissue another Menuhin recording, similarly neglected: Brahms three violin sonatas. The violinist made it with his brother-in-law Louis Kentner. To my delight and surprise, here it is.

This was one of many collaborations around this time between the violinist and Louis Kentner. The two set down complete cycles of the Bach and Beethoven violin sonatas, some Mozart sonatas and the Schubert Fantasie. At the time these were committed to disc, Menuhin’s violin technique was beginning to show some cracks, which would later have deleterious effects on his playing. As well as intonation problems, he was developing a tremor in his bow arm. Also, tone production would become an issue. The recordings from the fifties are generally a mixed bag, with the Bach-Kentner cycle perhaps not coming across as well as the rest. The Schubert Fantasie stands out as exceptional and so do these three Brahms sonatas.

Menuhin had already recorded the first and third Brahms sonatas with his sister Hephzibah, and he was to record Op. 108 several times. This is his only commercial recording of No. 2 in A major, Op. 100, so this traversal of the complete sonatas is very welcome indeed.

These are agreeably paced and spacious performances and Menuhin’s inimitable sound, with its myriad layers of colour, is very much in evidence. He is on good form throughout. His instinctive and intuitive style, together with a creative spontaneity, permeate these readings. This is music-making caught on the wing. These performances penetrate to the very heart of each sonata, whether it be the intimacy of the first, the romantic sensibilities of the second or the more dramatic disposition of the third.

Menuhin’s instantly recognizable sound, influenced by the gypsy style of Enesco, with its highly individual slides and position changes, is ideal for this music. His varied vibrato confers a tonal range well-suited to painting these romantic canvasses. The hymn-like adagio of the first sonata is invested with nobility and grandeur. I can’t recall it being more eloquently realized. The slow movement of the third sonata has a wistful and nostalgic quality, building up to a passionate climax enhanced by the violinist’s ability to project the line. Though the opening double-stops are not as crisply incisive as some, the finale of the third has great drama, energy and drive. By no stretch of the imagination was Menuhin one of the great violin technicians, but he had the gift of being able to communicate through music and touch the listener; what Ida Haendel referred to as 'magic'.

I heard Menuhin live several times, both as violinist and conductor, the last time in 1984 when he gave a concert in Richmond, North Yorkshire together with some pupils from his school. On that occasion he played the Brahms Op.100. It was a stricken performance marred by poor intonation, clumsy and inept position changes and an unsteady bow - a sad final memory. He retired from violin performing shortly afterwards and concentrated on conducting for the remainder of his life.

Forgotten Records are to be lauded for this release and for their meticulous care in seeking out first class source material. Sound quality throughout is ideal with the Op. 78 sonata (the first to be recorded) faring the best with a more spacious and resonant acoustic. Though EMI issued the LPs in both mono and stereo, it is from the latter format that these excellent transfers have been made. This is without doubt one of the finest cycles of the Brahms violin sonatas I have ever come across, and I’m more than happy to spread the news.

Stephen Greenbank