Menuhin plays Paganini
Speaking of the 1934 Paganini Concerto recording in the context of the video “Yehudi Menuhin – The Violin of the Century”, Lord Menuhin recalled the youthful exhilaration of enjoying a virtually limitless technical facility; and if I were to select just half-a-dozen items from this dizzying sequence of CD reissues, the Paganini First would certainly be one of them. Monteux’s Paris accompaniment has a vim and vigour that sets the mood to perfection, while Menuhin’s first entry positively leaps from the speakers. The score is played complete, the EMI transfer is forward and lifelike (Biddulph’s is good, but nowhere near as clean) while Menuhin’s handling of Emile Sauret’s first-movement cadenza would triumph at any violinistic Olympics: I doubt if even Paganini himself generated as much excitement. The same CD also includes a heady sequence of Caprices (mostly as recast by Kreisler or Enescu), La campanella (in Wilhelmj’s arrangement), a quick-fire Moto perpetuo (every bit as impressive as the young Heifetz’s) and a performance of the
Which brings me to the inevitable question of Master Menuhin versus his more mature self and the relative gains and losses in style and tone. Generally speaking, I would say that virtuoso pieces fare best in young Yehudi’s hands, whereas mainstream classical and romantic works were better served later on. For example, the 1934 Kreutzer Sonata is noticeably less full of insight – and rather less spontaneous – than the 1938 recordings of Beethoven’s Seventh and Tenth Sonatas (both on Biddulph), not to mention the Schubert Rondo (EMI) and a 1940 Brahms First Sonata (Biddulph) where the Adagio’s closing moments are granted an almost Quietist sense of self-communion. All are with Hephzibah Menuhin (a 1936 Brahms Third Sonata isn’t quite so compelling), as are the Beethoven Ghost and Tchaikovsky A minor Trios, the latter two supplemented by a rather pale-sounding Maurice Eisenberg. The Beethoven is vigorous but unexceptional, whereas the Tchaikovsky (Menuhin’s very first chamber music session and his only studio recording – as a violinist – of a full-length Tchaikovsky work), is ardently lyrical though refreshingly unmannered.
The 1948 recording of Prokofiev’s First Sonata reveals the occasional technical blemish, though the tone remains vibrant (especially in the muted Andante) and the interpretation warmly communicative. This particular CD is especially valuable in that it features impressive Szymanowski and Ravel as well as a superb transfer of Menuhin’s finest early duo-sonata recording (1936), the Enescu Third where, by the violinist’s own admission, close attention to written detail facilitates the improvisatory quality that Enescu had in mind when he wrote the piece.
Biddulph’s ‘bumper bundle’ includes heartfelt renditions of Bach and Handel – very much on a par with those of Enescu and Szigeti – while the EMI set adds a most worthwhile bonus (only available to those who purchase the complete set) in Mozart Concertos Nos. 14 and 19 where Menuhin and the Bath Festival Orchestra offer the sagely classical Hephzibah finely crafted support (her playing is often exquisitely voiced, especially in No. 19).
The remaining performances of works for violin and orchestra are of somewhat variable quality, the rarest being the Bruch First Concerto recorded in San Francisco in 1945 under Monteux – a muddled-sounding though immensely forthright affair, powerfully conducted (just listen to the orchestral attack, 0'59'' into track 20) and unstintingly expressive. EMI’s 1953 Saint-Saens’s Third Concerto is almost as rare, though this time signs of strain tend to intrude, especially in the outer movements. Still, the Andantino quasi allegretto is affectingly phrased and the couplings – a highly audacious Lalo Symphonie espagnole and a soaring Chausson Poeme (both recorded in 1933 under Enescu) – are superlatively well played, the Lalo including its “Intermezzo” (something of a rarity at the time). Wieniawski’s passionate Legende, again conducted by Enescu and raptly dispatched by Menuhin, turns up on Biddulph’s “Virtuoso Violin Music”.
As to the various short pieces, Menuhin’s youthful flair and flamboyant virtuosity make hay with Sarasate and Brahms’s Hungarian Dances (his love of indigenous musics also helps), while Bloch’s
Incidentally, EMI’s disc of ‘encores’ and Biddulph’s “Favourite Encores” provide, between them, a fine – and largely unduplicated – balance of Menuhin’s ‘showpiece’ repertoire. The Biddulph sampler, “Yehudi Menuhin – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is valuable in that most selections are followed by interesting spoken reminiscences by Menuhin himself. Being pretty inexpensive, it may also prove the best place to start; but if you would find it more useful for me to recommend, say, a ‘top three’, then I would opt for EMI’s Paganini and twentieth-century duo-sonata discs plus Biddulph’s two-disc set of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms sonatas. On the other hand, you may prefer to invest in the video “Yehudi Menuhin – The Violin of the Century”, an essential supplement not only to Menuhin’s records but to his newly revised autobiography Unfinished Journey (Methuen: 1996). Here there are surprises galore, from revealing early footage (both with and without sound) to cameo film-shots of Bartok and Enescu, and film of Menuhin performing with Glenn Gould, Duke Ellington, Wilhelm Kempff, Herbert von Karajan (including an impromptu run-through of The Blue Danube), Wilhelm Furtwangler, Paul Paray, Ferenc Fricsay (a particularly moving fragment), Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Viktoria Postnikova, David Oistrakh and others. We see Hephzibah playing a couple of Mendelssohn’s Variations serieuses, hear reminiscences about countless great musicians and can witness Menuhin performing music that he never recorded commercially. Menuhin relates his own life story with charm, ease and much gentle humour; one leaves the screen grateful and humbled, but it will be the records – or at least the best of them – that draw you back again and again.'