Beethoven Violin Concerto Menuhin Furtwangler EMI 5669752

Déjà Review: this review was first published in July 2003 and the recording is still available.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D, Op 61
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E, Op 64
Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra (Beethoven), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Mendelssohn)/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. 7 & 8 April 1953, Kingsway Hall, London (Beethoven), 25 & 26 May 1952, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin (Mendelssohn)
Originally reviewed as EMI 5669752
Warner Classics 5669752 [72]

To compare this Beethoven with Menuhin’s first stereo remake, recorded under Constantin Silvestri in Vienna seven years later, is to obtain a lesson on the fickleness of inspiration and human frailty. Silvestri conducts more than ably, and the tempo is practically the same both times, yet Menuhin is edgy, nervous, and often plays sharp. Despite a few flexible corners as he settles down, Furtwängler offers a remarkably classical reading of the orchestral exposition – far more so than Bruno Walter in his recording with Szigeti – but somehow he gives the idea that each new idea is born in that moment. Thereafter, he and Menuhin are as one, a true dialogue as the ideas pass between them. The slow movement under Silvestri seems episodic; Furtwängler and Menuhin create a seamless flow. I have never before appreciated so much the continuity of this movement. Menuhin begins the finale at a fairly serene dance tempo; his phrasing is a little more legato than we usually hear, and Furtwängler picks this up so as to give a completely unified effect while Silvestri phrases the normal way. At the first episode, Furtwängler speeds up, but he turns out to be right. Silvestri carries on at the same tempo and it becomes a plod, so when Menuhin enters he speeds things up on his own account. Menuhin and Furtwängler play as one man, and this movement, too, is the best integrated I have ever heard.

Not surprisingly, Menuhin returned to the concerto only a few years after the Silvestri recording, this time with Klemperer. Later still he remade it with Kurt Masur, but in the opinion of many his truly great Beethoven concerto recordings are the two under Furtwängler, of which this is the second. There are those who feel that the 1947 version is more inspired still, but since the present one is in very good 1953 mono sound, it can safely be recommended to the general listener in search of a deep musical experience.

The Mendelssohn is rather more shrill as a recording, but never mind, the performance is fiery and passionate in the first movement, surprisingly mobile in the second and sufficiently steady in the last to allow all the counterpoint to come through clearly; genuinely vivacious, not merely fast. Few performances make you so aware of the stature of the composer and of the work.

And yet … Furtwängler was an inspirational artist who always gave his best before an audience. In 1952 he gave this concerto in Turin – preserved in the archives – with the volatile artist Gioconda De Vito. For every thousand people who have heard the name of Menuhin, you’d be lucky to meet one who knows that of De Vito, but she was a great violinist, too, more romantic than Menuhin with a vocal style of phrasing that looks back to Kreisler. She obviously got on well with Furtwängler since the archives also contain a marvellous Brahms concerto from them. There is a freedom and poetry, if at times a wildness, to their performance which makes the Menuhin sound a shade studio-bound. Some of Furtwängler’s RAI performances are coming out on CD from the Istituto Discografico Italiano, so perhaps this is on the way.

All the same, the Menuhin/Furtwängler collaboration was an important one and all the discs they did together deserve to be called “great”. If you don’t know these two performances, they’ll probably leave you marvelling anew at the music itself.

Christopher Howell

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