Recorded: : 12, 13.IX.1953, No.l Studio, Abbey Road, London (1-3); 12.X.1957, No.lA Studio, Abbey Road (4-7)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler
Producers: Lawrance Collingwood & David Bicknell (1-3); Ronald Kinloch Anderson (4-7)
Menuhin plays Bartok
Not just the violin but also its players exercised a substantial influence on the life and career of Bela Bartok (1881-1945). As a young man he fell in love with Stefi Geyer and wrote a concerto for her. Other Hungarian violinists were constant factors in his life, not only the country fiddlers whose folk music he noted down so meticulously on his collecting trips, but also the classical players who poured out of Hungary, most of them pupils of his colleague Jend Hubay. Those with whom he had close ties included Jelly d'Aranyi (in whom, as with Geyer, he had a more than professional interest), Joseph Szigeti, Zoltan Szekely and Andre Gertler. Bartok, one of the best pianists of his era, appeared in concert with all these musicians and they influenced not only his works for the violin but also his string quartets. It was for Szekely that he composed what we now know as the Second Violin Concerto. In this work, typically, he contrived to produce exactly what he himself wanted (a set of variations), while appearing to write what his soloist expected (a virtuoso concerto). The work was intended as Szekely's sole property for a period, but, during the war, the violinist became trapped in occupied Holland, while Bartok emigrated to the United States.
The last and greatest of the Bartok violinists was not Hungarian but an American of Russian extraction, Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999). In 1942 the violinist met Bartok's friend, the conductor Antal Dorati, who introduced him to the composer's music by playing extracts on the piano. Eventually, Menuhin took up two of Bartok's major works: the Concerto No.2 and the Violin Sonata No.l. The first American performances of the concerto were given in 1943 by Tossy Spivakovsky; Menuhin followed suit by playing the work in Minneapolis, where it was conducted (from memory) by Dimitri Mitropoulos. He also scheduled the sonata for a (ecital at Carnegie Hall later the same year, with the pianist Adolf Bailer, but felt he would like first to get the opinion of Bartok himself, who had often played the piece in public. Having arranged to meet the composer at a mutual friend's apartment, Menuhin and Bailer were a little taken aback to find Bartok, already seated, with score open and pencil poised. But after the first movement he stood up, came over to them and said: 'I did not think music could be played like that until long after the composer was dead.'
Knowing of Bartok's straitened circumstances, Menuhin asked the composer if he might commission a work from him. The violinist told me that it was the composer's idea to make it an unaccompanied sonata: as a pianist, BartSk knew all too well the quality of the pianos Menuhin and Bailer would encounter on tour, especially in wartime. He was confirmed in this plan when he attended the Carnegie Hall recital at which Menuhin played Bach's C major solo Sonata, with its massive fugue. Though it soon goes its own way, Bartok's sonata shows its Bachian provenance in its opening flourishes, in the title of its first movement, and in the fugue of the second movement, which Menuhin described as 'perhaps the most aggressive, even brutal music I play'. Bartok conferred a good deal with Menuhin (though he did not defer to all the violinist's requests for changes) and attended the first performance in Carnegie Hall in November 1944. Within ten months he was dead, a victim of leukaemia.
With hindsight one can see that Menuhin was an ideal evangelist for Bartok: the violinist had already handled, as well as anyone, the exotic Romanian strains of the Third Sonata by his own teacher George Enescu, and there is as much Romanian as Hungarian folk material in the music of Bartok. From 1944 he played Szekely's transcription of the Six Romanian Dances, but he concentrated his efforts on the three main Bartok works in his repertoire and made multiple recordings of them. In 1944, on one of his flying visits to England, he broadcast the concerto (heard over the radio in Amsterdam by the beleaguered Szekely); in the following year he gave the work its London concert premiere, and in 1946 he made the first of four recordings of it. Three of these were with Dorati, but the second, heard on this CD, had an unlikely collaborator in Wilhelm Furtwangler. The German conductor was not a noted accompanist, but he enjoyed a good rapport with some soloists, notably Edwin Fischer and Menuhin. He and the Philharmonia do a professional job here and Menuhin's marvellous interpretation emerges virtually intact. With the benefit of tape, the violinist even improves marginally on his 78rpm recording in the slow movement, where the extra half minute or so makes all the difference.
Menuhin also made a 78rpm recording of the solo sonata, in 1947, but this CD features his equally splendid version from a decade later. Bartok was a little ambitious ih the finale, the most Hungarian of the four movements, Rotating the semi-quavers in the first 92 bars and bars 201-220 in quarter-tones and the passage at bars 58-63 in third-tones. Menuhin habitually took the simpler semitone options, and even left the trickier alternatives out of his first published edition (a decision he later regretted). He continued to give superb performances of the work for many more years, including a mid-1970s recording and a thrilling televised account, but this 1957 version is the best compromise between performance and sound quality.
-Tully Potter, 2001