Friday, August 19, 2016

Pablo Casals Elevates Yehudi Menuhin to a Higher Plane

With only 7 CDs Live Performances and Festival Recordings is the smallest box in Warner Classics’ The Menuhin Century. However, as they say, good things come in small packages; and this box has two CDs that present violinist Yehudi Menuhin on a plane higher than almost anything encountered in The Historic Recordings (the eighteen CDs in the second box) or the Unpublished Recordings and Rarities box of 22 CDs. What makes those two CDs special comes down to two words: “Pablo Casals.” The recordings were made at performances in the festival that Casals founded and took place on an annual basis in Prades, located in the Pyrénées-Orientales department in southern France.

Menuhin’s major contribution came during the summer of 1955, when he performed all three of Johannes Brahms’ piano trios with Casals on cello and Eugene Istomin on piano. He then returned the following summer to play Robert Schumann’s Opus 80 (second) piano trio in F major, again with Casals but this time with pianist Mieczysław Horszowski. Those who have heard or read accounts of Casals pedagogical technique (or possibly seen footage of one or more of his master classes) know how persuasive he could be, but his powers of persuasion would always grounded in a clear understanding of all the marks on the paper from which he had to play combined with an exquisitely-wrought sense of rhetoric that reliably kept him away from the extremes of either too much or too little. It is thus reasonable to assume that Casals was “the boss” in all four of these trio performances. As a result they perfectly complement (and never overlap) the trio recordings that EMI made of Casals playing with violinist Jacques Thibaud and pianist Alfred Cortot.

That rhetorical sweet spot between too much and too little may best be appreciated in the recording of Brahms’ Opus 8, his first piano trio in B major. This one deserves to be singled out because in 1891, Brahms accepted the fact that what he had composed in 1854 was, indeed, too much. He thus set out to tighten up the piece; and that is the version that is almost always played today (unless the performers specifically wish to call attention to the changes Brahms made). That latter version covers a broad emotional spectrum without ever letting any of those emotions go to extremes; and Menuhin, Casals, and Istomin are clearly in agreement in the matter of avoiding excess without compromising expression.

That impeccable sense of balance may be most evident in the third (Adagio) movement. One gets the feeling that the young Brahms who first conceived this music had developed a keen appreciation for those passages in which composer Ludwig van Beethoven could convey the illusion of time standing still. In its revised form this movement remains one of the best examples of Brahms following those particular Beethoven footsteps; and one could not ask for a better interpretation of the results than the one provided by Menuhin, Casals, and Istomin.

In fairness, however, a single movement from a single piano trio does not make much of a case for the whole Warner package of 80 CDs and 11 DVDs. However, Menuhin’s work with Casals recalls the high point of the Historic Recordings box, which is his performance of Edward Elgar’s Opus 61 violin concerto under Elgar’s baton. One of the themes that permeates Menuhin’s Unfinished Journey memoir involves the respect with which he would treat those with whom he worked, always on the lookout for how he could best please his colleagues. Perhaps Elgar and Casals made it clear from the outset that they set high expectations; and Menuhin rose to them, while, to chose just one example, Wilhelm Furtwängler never was as demanding, at least of Menuhin.

In this respect the last CD in Live Performances and Festival Recordings may be the most informative in how it is also the most disappointing. These are the recordings of Menuhin as a conductor during the Bath Festivals of 1964 and 1965. The repertoire is ambitious, including works by Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Béla Bartók, and Michael Tippett. However, the performances, while consistently dutiful, are also consistently lifeless. This is more than a small disappointment when one considers how vigorously energetic the Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Bartók selections are. In addition, it may well have been the case that Menuhin never quite knew what to do with the Tippett, which was a cerebral reflection on Arcangelo Corelli that really needed more attention to that kind of intense expressiveness that Corelli was said to have brought to his own performances.

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