The young Yehudi Menuhin's groundbreaking first concerto recordings
"Everybody who cares about violin playing should acquire this piece of still developing history" - Fanfare
Legendary producer Fred Gaisberg was sufficiently impressed by the success of the Bruch sessions that he hit upon an idea of pairing him with Elgar for a recording of the latter’s violin concerto. Gaisberg had tried unsuccessfully for years to get Fritz Kreisler to record the concerto he had premièred with the composer in 1910, even offering to send Elgar to Berlin to conduct it. With the composer’s advancing age and the sense that time was running out, he passed the score on to Menuhin, seeing the violinist as “a youthful and pliant performer without prejudice, who would respond best to [Elgar’s] instruction.”
Menuhin quickly fell in love with the work. After trying it out before his mentor George Enescu, he travelled to London in July of 1932 to rehearse and record it with the composer, who was already an admirer of his artistry. The story of that meeting is well-known, with Elgar so pleased that he cut the rehearsal short to go off to the races. The recording which followed has attained a legendary status, rarely going out of the catalogue.
The Elgar was first reissued on LP for the composer’s centenary in 1957, after which EMI destroyed their metal masters, per the practice of the time, believing they had preserved the recording in the ultimate listening format. For a 1972 LP reissue, Anthony Griffith had to fall back on crackly British HMV shellac 78s for source material. EMI deemed this unacceptably noisy for their first CD reissue in 1989, and the quieter but less vivid 1957 transfer was revived.
By the time of its second CD reissue in 1992, EMI had learned that superior copies existed on the Victor label, and engineer Andrew Walter borrowed a “Z” pressing set from an American collector for his transfer. The same copy was later lent to me for my Naxos restoration in 1999. For the present release, I drew upon three Victor copies (one “Z” and two “Gold” label pressings), filtering minimally in order to present what I believe to be the most open sound yet for this classic recording. (The occasional recurring squeaking noises on the first sides of the first and last movements are in the original masters.)
The Bruch was not first issued on LP until 1976, when EMI brought out a box of early Menuhin recordings for the violinist’s 60th birthday. As far as I have been able to determine, there has never been an “official” CD transfer of the recording, although several labels have reissued it from commercial 78 pressings, including one I did for Naxos. I have newly transferred it here from the best sides of one “Z” and two “Gold” label Victor pressings, again making minimal adjustments to the original sound.
BRUCH Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26
Sir Landon Ronald, conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 25-26 November 1931 in Abbey Road Studio 1, London
Matrix nos.: 2B 2022-2, 2023-2, 2024-3, 2025-1A, 2026-2 & 2027-2
First issued on HMV DB 1611/3
ELGAR Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61
Sir Edward Elgar, conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 14-15 July 1932 in Abbey Road Studio 1, London
Matrix nos: 2B 2968-2A, 2969-2A, 2970-1A, 2971-2A, 2972-1A, 2973-2A,
2974-1A, 2975-1A, 2976-2A, 2977-1A, 2978-1 & 2979-2
First issued on HMV DB 1751/6
Yehudi Menuhin violin
Essay: Meeting Menuhin
As someone who transfers recordings mainly from the 78 rpm era and whose concert-going experiences only date from the 1970s onward, I’ve rarely had the opportunity to hear the subjects of my restorations in performance, let alone get to meet them. But one who I had the privilege not only of meeting but actually spending some time with in discussion was Yehudi Menuhin.
Menuhin was in Philadelphia in February, 1982 to give the long-delayed local première of the Bloch Violin Concerto under Muti, and Ward Marston arranged for the two of us to meet him at his hotel for a taped interview. When we arrived on a Saturday morning at his suite at The Barclay on Rittenhouse Square (where Eugene Ormandy had a permanent residence), we were greeted by the sound of his practicing through the door he had left open for us.
He ushered us into the room, beginning with an apology for his performance at the concert the night before (which neither of us had attended, although I had a ticket for that evening’s performance), saying he had been told just before he stepped onstage of the death of his father in California. He immediately put us at ease, patiently putting up with our occasional ignorance with an avuncular benevolence.
I pulled out my old cassette tape the other night and played the interview again for the first time in many years. What struck me most, besides his patience and kindness, was his remarkable articulateness. The writing in his autobiography Unfinished Journey was exactly the way he spoke extemporaneously. We talked about his early career, his first recordings, his long friendships with artists like Kreisler and Thibaud, his thoughts on Furtwängler and Karajan.
One thing in particular struck me now, in light of my having just finished transferring his classic recording of the Elgar concerto with the composer conducting. He said that at the age of seven or eight, he was already able to understand the emotions behind works like the Tchaikovsky concerto and the Lalo Symphonie Espganole; but the short morceaux of Kreisler like “Liebesfreud” and “Liebesleid” took longer to grasp, for it meant learning to appreciate the whole of the Viennese experience that had led to their composition – the meeting of disparate cultures, religions and history that developed the peculiar Viennese character, which he saw as, to paraphrase, a love of pleasure almost because one had to accept what one couldn’t change.
It put more into perspective what the sixteen year-old Menuhin was able to accomplish in his recording of the Elgar concerto. He had only first come to England three years before, but already he was beginning to understand the character of the people, which he wrote in his autobiography was “a kind of passionate innocence, very different from the passions – volcanic, aggressive, sophisticated, etc. – of other countries.” Although he saw Elgar’s music as “English to the point of being almost unexportable”, he was able to understand – and, more importantly, convey – what I would call the longing, relinquishment and “carrying on” in spite of things that the concerto embodies.
It was that preternatural musical maturity that set the young Menuhin above the kind of technique-based prodigies whose videos fill YouTube today. And in these new transfers of his first concerto recordings (also including the Bruch G minor concerto), issued to commemorate the centenary of his birth, we can take the measure of this legendary performer at nearly the start of his long and illustrious career.
Reviews: MusicWeb International & Fanfare
The emotional tenor of the performance, well beyond Menuhin’s tender fifteen years, astounds for the versatility and stamina of a natural wunderkind
The teenage Yehudi Menuhin recorded Bruch’s First Violin Concerto on November 25 and 26, 1931; and, due to that early success, inherited the mantle of recording Elgar’s Violin Concerto with the composer, an honor that would have been accorded to Fritz Kreisler, who had given the premiere with Elgar conducting in 1910, had he not proved uncooperative. The two recordings (of Bruch and Elgar) themselves have become legendary, and even those who, perhaps with good reason, might prefer Jascha Heifetz or Isaac Stern in Bruch’s work or Albert Sammons in Elgar’s (could Kreisler really have played it more convincingly?) must acknowledge Menuhin’s recordings as important ones, not only for the launching of his career but also as milestones in the history of violin recordings (at least it seems that way at a distance of 85 years).
It’s hardly necessary to comment extensively on these ageless performances. Mark Obert-Thorn said almost everything that needs to be said in discussing the story of early transfers. He mentions the centennial LP (for Elgar) in 1957 and the subsequent loss of the metal masters, the use of shellacs for reissues on CD, his own restoration for Naxos, and his decision to rely this second time on three Victor pressings (Z and Gold Label). In the case of the Bruch Concerto, for Pristine he again made use of Z and Gold Label recordings. (Naxos Historical had also paired the two concertos on its earlier release.)
There’s considerable noise at the beginning of Bruch’s concerto. As usual, Obert-Thorn has split the last movement of Elgar’s into two separate tracks (which he also did for Naxos in Heifetz’s and Sammons’s reissues), the second beginning with the accompanied cadenza. These desultory remarks don’t even pretend to be a review. Here’s a review for those who need one: These recordings have perhaps been legendary (as mentioned) since the days when Menuhin made them—they came out of the figurative corner with a strong spotlight trained on them. They both sound magnificent and make a powerful impact in Obert-Thorn’s latest attempt to dust them off. As a duster, he’s arguably the best (although I prefer some of BMG’s transfers of early Heifetz recordings). Everybody who cares about violin playing should acquire this piece of still developing history.
This article originally appeared in Issue 40:1 (Sept/Oct 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.
In an extended note to this historic reissue, Mark Obert-Thorn provides a personal anecdote of his February 1982 meeting with Yehudi Menuhin and their discussions of various musical topics. I, too, must share a recollection that this latest incarnation of the 1909 Elgar Violin Concerto (rec. 14-15 July 1932) evokes, since it was in Atlanta that I heard Menuhin perform this same concerto with conductor Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra prior to my fateful first meeting with him at the Fairmont Hotel. Obert-Thorn remarks on Menuhin’s capacity for articulate communication, much in accord with his written persona in his book Unfinished Journey.
I had seen Dick Cavett interview Yehudi Menuhin on Cavett’s TV show, and I had concluded after a few minutes that Cavett simply didn’t know enough to ask Menuhin important questions. I vowed that I would not so falter. Armed with many LP documents, I met Yehudi Menuhin and proceeded to interview him for the newspaper I represented at the time, Creative Loafing in Atlanta. I recall foremost the rapt attention he gave me: he had a way of arresting his own gaze with such steadfastnesss that I felt as if I had somehow become the most important person he could be listening to at the moment! When I asked him why he had no “current” recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, he candidly confessed that, aside from what he considered an abortive attempt with Boult, he had no ambition to compete with Jascha Heifetz in this piece, stating that in his opinion, the Heifetz was tantamount to the ‘Beethoven Concerto.’ He did, however, vigorously recommend the performance taped with Ferenc Fricsay for their tour captured by DGG.
For those who already possess the Naxos incarnation of this concerto combination, the Pristine may prove redundant. But for the novitiate or the enthusiast, this performance in its latest format carries an urgency that sheds a new light on the authority of the conducting and the precocity of the soloist. The lilting theme of the first movement – presumably meant to celebrate Alice Stuart-Wortley – acquires an uncanny sense of wistful resignation as it moves through a series of sequences likely taken from the example proffered by Brahms in his own concerto. The robust maestoso development seems to pit the orchestra’s frenzy against a consoling violin part, though Menuhin at fifteen certainly can explode passionately when required. The Menuhin violin tone – which conductor Furtwaengler once characterized as ‘the most human’ – never fails to intone a vocal song eminently heart-rending. The coda increases in intensity, a gripping apotheosis in which solo and orchestra strike complementary Olympian sparks.
Few idylls in music can equal the B-flat Major Andante of Elgar’s Concerto in this inscription, although my memory of the mature Menuhin in 1982 in performance casts a valediction quite unique. The entire affect means to be Nobilmente, literally capitalized within the score and declared as Elgar’s intended tombstone epigraph. The young Menuhin achieves the very mode of intimacy that marks his playing through a long and robust career. The enormously expansive last movement, Allegro molto, combines a fantasia sensibility with dervishly challenging bravura figures for the solo, some of which remind me of similar martial filigree in the Busoni Concerto. The dramatic leaps, however, I ascribe once more to the Brahms influence. The grand move here occurs at the novel Cadenza accompagnata: Lento that has Menuhin’s weaving through past melodic tissue – “memories and hopes,” as Elgar put it – while the strings employ a strummed pizzicato tremolando effect. If Elgar intended to express something of Coleridge’s “Aeolian Harp,” he effected it. The lyric past will have its nobilmente utterance once more before Menuhin and Elgar catapult forward, marching to a moral victory. The inscription has been startlingly “present” throughout.
It seems almost counter-intuitive to discuss the 25-26 November 1931 reading of the 1866 Bruch First Concerto, but the fact remains that for Menuhin’s debut in concerto repertory the performance bodes well. The young violinist readily carries the torch of his Enescu pedagogy, with throaty, deeply studied phraseology and lyric outpouring. The seductive charm of the first movement has a powerful advocate in Ronald’s orchestral transition to the Adagio, which Ronald underlines by pregnant pauses within the emerging melodic line. The virtually seamless side joins Obert-Thorn achieves only add to the sheer exotic curve of the expansive song. The last movement Allegro energico enjoys a lushly incisive approach, moving from its dance-motif to the ardent secondary tune that builds up from half steps to a grand peroration. The emotional tenor of the performance, well beyond Menuhin’s tender fifteen years, astounds for the versatility and stamina of a natural wunderkind.