Great Recordings Of The Century - Beethoven; Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos / Furtwangler, Menuhin Import
Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Furtwängler, born a generation apart and separated by a world at war, were nonetheless musical and philosophical soulmates. Their recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, made seven years after they first met, is one of the treasures of the EMI archive, a testament to a bygone era of spontaneous and deeply subjective music-making. There is a nobility to the reading that has never been equaled, an unforced passion that would be difficult for any of today's musicians to duplicate. The monaural recording is remarkably fine, with satisfying depth and abundant detail. --Ted Libbey
But a number of reasons explain that the older version was immediately overshadowned by its 1953 successor: the 1947 recording was issued on 78rpm, His Master's Voice DB 6574/79 and, for reasons that I cannot entirely account for, not even reissued on LP in the early 1950s, as was the case with many significant 78s versions (for instance, Kulenkampff and Schmidt-Isserstedt's 1936 Telefunken version, Heifetz and Toscanini's Victor recording from 1940, and Szigeti-Walter's from 1947 on Columbia): maybe EMI's Walter Legge had planned all that time for a new recording to be made by the two artists and didn't want to undercut the new version's anticipated success by reissuing the older one. Or maybe the reasons were political. The Lucerne recording was also never distributed in the US, even in its 78rpm form. David Hall, in the second, 1950 edition of his encyclopedic "Records", complained about it, saying that "if Victor were to issue these records in the U.S.A. they would offer the strongest kind of competition to the near-definitive Szigeti-Bruno Walter reading, regardless of the latter's availability in LP format". Little did he know (and I, before reading the liner notes of the Testament reissue) that RCA, then HMV's affiliated company in the US, had refused to issue it as it was "not thought politically expedient", given the controversy surrounding Furtwängler's attitude during the Nazi era.
So by 1954, with the release of the new recording, hardly anyone had the older version to compare or the equipment to play it on, and even if they had, the 78rpm sonics would have been considered antiquated and non competitive anyway. And how was the pickup Lucerne Festival Orchestra going to compete with the glorious Philharmonia, the orchestra established in London by Walter Legge, the one with which all the luminaries on EMI's roster, Furtwängler, Karajan, Kubelik, Boult, Cantelli, Galliera, Dobrowen, Sargent, Böhm, Süsskind, Markevitch, recorded? In an era when new LP versions of the Concerto were multiplying fast (Ida Handel-Kubelik, Francescatti-Ormandy, Krebbers-Otterlo, Campoli-Krips, Ricci-Boult, Szeryng-Thibaud) but were still, compared to what we know, in limited amount, the new version met with immediate and universal success, and it hasn't abated since.
Yet, the earlier one is better.
First, it has to do with the sonics of the Testament reissue of Lucerne. The original recording was "digitally remastered at Abbey Road Studios by Paul Baily", and I don't know how he did it. In transfers from 78s you expect, even in the best transfers, to hear a modicum of surface noise. Not here, it sounds like a taped performance (there is more audible background noise in the hushed beginning of the slow movement). Although this 1999 remastering has very marginally improved the impact of EMI's first reissue in 1985 (Beethoven, Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos (Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 / Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64)), the is no obvious sonic superiority over the 1947 recording in Testament's reissue. On the contrary, there's even a touch more transparency and vibrancy on the 1947 violin. In fact, between Testament and References, both the sonics and, for a large part, the interpretations are so similar that, at times, I find myself doubting if I am really listening to two different recordings, rather than two different transfers of the same.
And the interpretations, then. The two are so similar in the outer movements as to be nearly and startlingly identitcal - so much so that, listening to the opening Allegro ma non troppo, I started wondering if the very slight differences that I thought I heard (beyond the slight difference of sonic perspective) weren't the product of my imagination, and if Testament hadn't in fact reissued the Philharmonia recording, passing it off for Lucerne. So here I was, jumping from one to the other, trying to detect those minuscule and almost undistinguishable performance glitches or stage noises that allow to conclude that a recording is not the same as another one. Well, there weren't many glitches or stage noises in either to be absolutely conclusive, but I did detect some, really minuscule. Anyway, in both cases, both outer movements unfold in typical Furtwängler fashion, large, expansive, unhurried, but it seemed to me that, more vivid orchestral presence helping, there is a touch of added muscularity and bite in the orchestral tutti of the 1947 recording: 1953 sounds more mellow. The Philharmonia, infinitely superior to the pickup Lucerne Festival Orchestra? Let's have facts, not just vague generalities: where, how, what? As for the soloist, Menuhin plays the first movement with incomparable tonal purity and luminosity and great emotional involvement, but again the tonal purity is better highlighted, it seemed to me, in the 1947 recording.
But if ever there was the shadow of a doubt hovering over the first movement, the two remaining ones are sufficiently different from one performance to the other to dissipate it, and here the advantage definitely goes to 1947. In all his recordings - his wartime performance with Erich Röhn (Beethoven: Violin Concerto, Op. 61 / Coriolan Overture, Op. 62), his final live performance of the Concerto with Wolfgang Schneiderhan in May 1953 (Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, Violin Concerto), the one from Lucerne and the one given again with Menuhin and the Berlin Philarmonic a month after the Lucerne recording (on the Audite set mentioned above) -, Furtwängler always conducted a spacious and held-back Larghetto. With the January 1944 performance with Röhn, the one from Lucerne with Menuhin is the most spacious and held back of all, and the effect, together with Menuhin's tonal luminosity and emotive delivery, is beautiful. The solo line is not just played, but delicately and plangently sung, with Menuhin's top notes boasting a moving frailty, almost whistle-like, like the ethereal pianissimos of a great soprano. By comparison the 1953 remake, as beautiful as it is, strays a bit from Furtwängler's norm by being somewhat more flowing (9:23 TT to Lucerne's 10:37), and the impression is overall, I find, plainer and less deeply felt. Menuhin approached the level of Lucerne's emotional intensity in his later stereo recordings with Silvestri in 1960 (Beethoven: Violin Concerto / Romances No. 1 & 2) and Klemperer in 1966 (Beethoven: Violin Concerto / Romances Nos. 1 & 2) - but never equaled it.
Differences are more subtle between both versions of the Finale, and again, jumping from one to the other, they often sound eerily identical. As was Furtwängler's custom, tempo is again unhurried (although there is much more of a tradition for that in the Finale, then and now, than in the Larghetto), but, either by interpretive choice or due to some technical difficulties Menuhin in 1953 tends to over-legatoize the phrasings of this dance-like rondo, robbing it of some of its bounce. That, added to the mellow orchdestral outbursts, tends to make the movement sound squarer than it might and even, in some spots, dangerously verging on the plodding, eliciting a vague feeling of boredom halfway through. Not so in 1947, and although tempo is the same, the bounce in Menuhin's phrasings and the added muscularity and impact of the orchestral tutti always keep attention awake. There is also a touch of wiriness to Menuhin's tone in the runs and double stops in 1954 that is absent in 1947, and in 1947 they sound more efffortelessly played.
Without hesitation, if I were to keep only one version of the Violin Concerto by Menuhin-Furtwängler, or by Furtwängler, or possibly by Menuhin (he made three more in the studio, those already mentioned with Silvestri in 1960 and Klemperer in 1966, and one with Masur in 1981, which seems to have been reissued here, Beethoven: Violin Concerto, and there's one more with himself conducting the Menuhin Festival Orchestra in 1971 which EMI posthumously released on Yehudi Menuhin: The Unpublished Recordings), it would be 1947. At least one undisputable authority agrees with me. The liner notes of EMI's previous reissue on References, by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler, recounted that Menuhin had been so enraptured by his Lucerrne encounter with Furtwängler in the Beethoven Concerto that for a while he said that he'd never play the Concerto again under any other conductor, later adding: "of course this is impossible, and I have often played it again under others and also with joy But at the time I was so impressed that I never wanted this precisous, this unique moment in time to become obliterated - I just wanted the sound to fade away in my ears - the way in which Furwängler had conducted this Concerto". Later, there's a famous anecdote, recounted in the Testament liner notes, in which Menuhin is hearing a broadcast of the 1947 recording without knowing who is playing, and doesn't recognize that it is his earlier version. "As the work was played he reflected that he would dearly love to be able to realize the Beethoven Concerto so such a fashion, only to be informed in an announcement at the end of the performance that he himself was the soloist".
The day after this recording was made with the Philharmonia, Menuhin and Furtwängler returned to Kingsway Hall to record Beethoven's two Violin Romances, which were to serve as a filler to the LP of the very Mendelssohn Concerto that serves as a complement here, and that had been recorded in Berlin in May 1952. Those Romances would have made the perfect filler to the Philharmonia Beethoven, but ironically they are paired with Testament's reissue of the Lucerne version. They are Furtwängler's only recording of them ((Menuhin made one more, with Pritchard and the Philharmonia in 1960, paired on the CD of the Concerto with Klemperer mentioned above, and there is another recording of op. 40 from 1971 where Menhin also conducts the Menuhin Festival Orchestra, on the same EMI posthumous release mentioned above) and the Testament reissue is the only CD circulation they got outside of Japan, which is another factor in favor that version.
I'll return later to Mendelssohn's Concerto. Good liner notes by Alan Sanders, TT 71:04, no complaint on this front.
Wilhelm Furtwangler was one of the last of the romantic conductors. His tempos in these concertos are deliberate and fluid and the orchestral sound is lush. He recorded the Beethoven concerto with Menuhin in 1947 and again, on the version given here, in 1953. The first version emphasizes the lyrical, gracious character of the work. The version here is more reserved, emphasizing the spiritual, lofty character that many listeners find in the Beethoven violin concerto.
The Beethoven concerto is remarkable for its breadth and spaciousness and for the opportunity it accords for interplay between orchestra and soloist. The orchestral part is unusually detailed and elaborate and much of the violin part, especially in the opening movement, is filigree and embroidery in the highest register of the instrument around the orchestral themes. There are beautiful melodies in this work together with dramatic passages. In the first movement, the new listener should focus on how the opening five-beats of the tympani come to pervade the entire movement. The second movement is a theme and variations with two deeply-moving and reflective interludes for the violin. For many listeners, this movement is the climax of the entire work. The third movement is a lively rondo, more unbuttoned than the first two movements, with a great deal of variety and a lively coda.
Joseph Joachim, the 19th century violinist who championed both the Beethoven and the Mendelssohn concertos, among many others, said in 1906 (celebrating his 75th birthday) that "the greatest, the most uncompromising" of the violin concerto's was Beethoven's but that "the most inward, the heart's jewel" is Mendelssohn's". Furtwangler and Menuin's rendition of this most-frequently played of the violin concertos brought Joachim's words home for me.
Unlike the Beethoven concerto, the soloist is almost always at the center of attention in the Mendelssohn. Menuhin plays with lyricism and passion -- this work is much more than a series of pretty tunes. The orchestral part is detailed and developed, if subordinate to the soloist, and Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic are equal partners to Menuhin's playing. This work is in three connected movements. In the opening, the new listener should focus on the long cadenza for the violin which Mendelssohn places following the development rather than in its usual place before the coda. The transition passages between the first and the second movement and the second and the third also are of great importance in this work. The second movement consists of a long songlike theme and the third movement is a light Mendelssohn scherzo. The performance here brings out the depths of this concerto.
This modestly-priced CD is an ideal way for the new listener to get to know two masterpieces for the violin concerto -- and two of the great works of music. The quotations I used earlier in the review are taken from the discussion of the Beethoven and Mendelssohn concertos in Michal Steinberg's book, "The Concerto: A Listener's Guide." Listeners interested in exploring the concerto literature will enjoy reading Steinberg's book.