There's no denying the historical importance of the relationship between Bartok and Menuhin, so it is a little surprising that EMI doesn't attempt to market this set with equal prominence to the artist and composer - maybe it tells us something about the audience for this series of reissues. Bartok wrote his substantial and technically extremely demanding sonata for solo violin for Menuhin, and Menuhin was a well-known promoter of Bartok's works. The recording in this set, however, dates from the 1970s, and maybe I am prejudiced, but Menuhin's playing isn't ideally crisp and fresh, even if the interpretation is still a very strong one and rather beautiful; it is played with a tonal warmth and almost mellow phrasing that sounds attractive enough if a little short on ferocity and attack.
The other recordings date from the 1960s. The recording quality is generally good, however (as it is in the solo violin sonata), but the playing isn't always as technically good as one could imagine - note-perfect, more or less, and I don't have any qualms about the intonation (a problem for the later Menuhin), but there is a certain lack of crispness and freshness and swagger. I would easily have lived with rougher edges if the reward had been more spirit. Still, his ideas are generally good ones and Menuhin's ability to convey the overall structure of the work is impressive. In the concertos he is joined by Antal Dorati and the New Philharmonia, and if nothing else the support is near idesl, powerful and passionate (as is Menuhin's playing in the first concerto) but never overdoing it. In the Rhapsodies, exhibiting many of the same qualities, he is joined by the BBCSO under Pierre Boulez, who leads some sharply etched, rhythmically incisive but never clinical performances, and even though the orchestral support is more lustrous than the soloists, Menuhin acquits himself well, with warmth and much beautiful playing.
For the selection of duos Menuhin is joined by Nell Gotkovsky for fine results, and in the unfinished viola sonata we get a chance of hearing Menuhin on an instrument he allegedly had wanted to take up on more occasions; the result is pretty convincing, and he produces a burnished, golden tone in a work which might not rate among Bartok's most successful works (even if he had finished it - as it is, the work is almost more the work of Tibor Serly than Bartok). So the performances are not perfect (or at least not, I maintain, "perfect in the right way") but they are still very rewarding, and if Menuhin at the time of the recordings had lost some of his spontaneity and effortlessness (although he seems to have preferred beauty over fervor throughout his career), these are still relative spirited and passionate renderings of some glorious music. Besides, this is a most useful collection of Bartok's most important violin music (apart from the two sonatas) and a worthy addition to any collection - even though you can find even better recordings of all the works featured here elsewhere.