EMI Classics’ ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series is widely recognised to contain a number of the greatest performances of the 20th century.
This CD of the Beethoven and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos, recorded in 1953 and 1952, respectively, brings together two of the greatest artists of the century, Wilhelm Furtwängler, 1886-1954, and Yehudi Menuhin, 1916-99. The Philharmonia Orchestra plays in the Beethoven, recorded at the Kingsway Hall, whilst, in the latter concerto, Furtwängler conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded in the Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin.
This recording of the Beethoven concerto was their second. The first, from 1947 is marginally more powerful but here the mono sound is distinctly better. Menuhin sought out the older artist, whose performances he knew from records, after the war. He was convinced that Furtwängler’s remaining in Germany during the war was motivated by artistic rather than political reasons. These outstanding performances are a consequence of the meeting of their musical, humanistic and spiritual temperaments.
As Alan Sanders writes in the leaflet, the soloist and conductor first played together in 1947 and their collaboration ended in 1953, the year before Furtwängler’s death, when they recording the Beethoven and Bartok’s Second concertos, and the two Beethoven Romances.
In the Beethoven, Menuhin is more emotional but Furtwängler’s experience and familiarity withf the orchestra allows him to accompany the soloist and to reveal the depths of the work. The conductor shapes the work from the opening tutti with the soloist entering in a seamless manner that immediately establishes a unity of purpose. The opening movement is conceived on the grandest scale that, nevertheless, allows the detail of Beethoven’s orchestration to be teased out. Furtwängler’s tempi are beautifully judged within each movement as well as offering an overall unity. Menuhin plays both of Fritz Kreisler’s cadenzas. Unlike Milstein, who creates a sense of detachment, Menuhin is fully involved in the music. The Beethoven concerto was supervised by Lawrence Collingwood, better known as a conductor, and David Bicknell.
The Mendelssohn concerto can often sound light in comparison with the Beethoven but here the work is given a much darker and more serious performance, and soloist and conductor establish a high level of accord in this, the earlier, performance. Menuhin articulates with great precision and attention to dynamics, and the work’s lyricism is to the fore in Furtwängler’s overall support and control. At the time of this recording, the conductor was under pressure from his regular producer, Walter Legge, and the intensely ambitious Herbert von Karajan. However, none of this emotional turmoil and resentment is reflected in the performance.
It is well known that Menuhin’s performances declined later in his career but, at this stage, this is not apparent. He plays with intensity and lyricism, and plays his part in building the excitement of the final movements, sweeping all before it with an outpouring of joyous music-making that belies the considerable preparation. All that is missing is the spontaneous outbreak of applause that both works fully justify.
Two artists at the peak of their musical creativities are heard in performances that unite their musicality and spirituality. These are indisputably Great Recordings.
Menuhin was a significant force in the rehabilitation of Furtwangler after the War - Furtwangler had often conducted for Hitler and the senior Nazis and his role was much questioned (it is still to some extent a matter of debate). Whether that fact, interesting as it is, has any bearing on these peformances or not, they are quite marvellous, particularly the Beethoven, combining on the part of both artistes a blend of firm control and an attractive improvisatory quality which is very very compelling, For its time the recording is excellent, fully enjoyable, and this fully justifies itself as a 'Great Recordings of the Century' release - very warmly recommended.
The thirteenth-century poet Rumi wrote that "the voice of the violin is the sound of the opening gate of paradise." I was swept away by this classic recording of the Beethoven and Mendelssohn violin concertos by Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Beethoven and the Berlin Philharmonic in the Mendelsshon. This disk is a reissue on the "Great Recordings of the Century" series. The recordings date from 1953.
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 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.