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CD Review

Violin Concertos

Yehudi Menuhin, violin
Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
EMI 66990 monaural
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This is another of the GROC series (Great Recordings of the Century) from EMI. They were recorded in 1953 and 1952 respectively. EMI has also issued Perlman and Giulini Beethoven in this series. To be honest, I find the Menuhin/Furtwängler combo infinity more "great". In fact, I'll say that I think this is one of the best of all time.

Whilst listening I thought about how Beethoven's Violin Concerto must have stunned audiences of his time. Already the "Eroica" had caused a furor. The audiences of the time must have been taken aback again, because there had been no violin concerto like this before. It is one of the Beethoven works that stands one foot in the classical world and one in the romantic. It is this Furtwängler/Menuhin recording that prompted these thoughts.

I must confess, to add to my final opinion of the Beethoven, that I was prepared to not like the soloist and despair that we had Furtwängler saddled to Menuhin. My previous exposures to the violinist revealed someone whose arm wasn't as deep as I like. There was poetry, but no muscle. I was wrong. Menuhin is poetic, finding an almost pastoral quality to the slow movement, and romantic and also deep and fiery where need be. I guess the word that most often crossed my mind while listening to Menuhin was, arresting. I found myself over and over catching my breath in ecstasy.

The Mendelssohn was another discovery. Until I listened to this recording I generally found the music pleasant and pleasing but not very deep. Menuhin and Furtwängler, however, plumb depths I loved hearing. In the very opening Menuhin finds a more nostalgic, almost painful backwards glance to life. This is a much darker, romantic Mendelssohn than I have previously heard. I have compared it with other "great" interpretations, the most recent Vengerov. Like a lot of others, he produces some spectacular gymnastics, but the whole thing sounds like a lot of fluff. Just compare the two at around 8 minutes into the first movement, where the solo violin begins to churn up the musical waters. Suddenly the orchestra joins in and the tension gets even more taut before the climax where they join as one. If you want substance with your soup, the Menuhin and Furtwängler recording is what you need.

A couple afterthoughts. The notes say nothing about the pieces, and a lot about the circumstances surrounding the recordings. For those who have forgotten, Furtwängler was shunned by many in the music world for having stayed in Nazi Germany during the war. He had to be "denazified" before allowed to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic again. Menuhin, a Jew, made the effort to reach out to Furtwängler and help "rehabilitate" the conductor's image. In addition, they "shared the same philosophical and spiritual approach to making music." (From Alan Sander's notes) I think that you can hear the symbiotic process going on here and also the gestalt that results. It's neat.

By the way, the sound is just great. There is air around the music and a depth to the sound stage. Neat stuff.

Copyright © 1999, Robert Stumpf II