Saturday, August 13, 2016

The “Historic Recordings” in Warner Classics’ “Menuhin Century” Release

The title of the second box in the Warner Classics The Menuhin Century collection is The Historic Recordings. According to the description on the back of the box, this section of the package “illuminates Menuhin by setting him in the context of momentous times and his collaboration with other towering musicians.” Those “towering musicians” include the composer Edward Elgar (conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of his Opus 61 violin concerto), conductor, violinist, pianist, and composer George Enescu (but not in the performance of any of his own music), conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, violinist Stéphane Grappelli, and composer and sitarist Ravi Shankar. The momentous times were the liberation of Paris in 1944, the celebration of the first anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949, and Menuhin’s visit to Moscow in 1945.

In discussing the first box, Unpublished Recordings and Rarities, I came to the sad conclusion that nothing “really leaps out and seizes the attention of the listener.” In this case I cannot summon quite as much all-encompassing pessimism. At the very least I must recognize that I still find listening to recordings of Elgar conducting his own music to be very informative, however inadequate the technologies may have been during his lifetime. To be fair, however, my admiration of Elgar had already been shaped by the EMI Classics release of the three volumes of The Elgar Edition (each with three CDs) between 1992 and 1993. (I was living in Singapore at the time, and opportunities to listen to any performances of classical music were very few. These recordings were a particularly welcome addition to my collection.) I have not heard many performances of Elgar’s violin concerto in concert (although Menuhin was conducting one of them); nor do I have many recordings of the piece. However, Elgar was not shy about bringing a thoroughly compelling visceral rhetoric to his reading of the concerto; and getting Menuhin to follow him into that somewhat adverse emotional terrain did not seem to require much effort on his part.

However, as we read in Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” “One swallow does not make a summer;” and one concerto does not make an impressive resource of historical recordings. Perhaps the greatest surprise and disappointment came from the sessions with Furtwängler. Mind you, I am way beyond any blind faith that Furtwängler could do no wrong on the podium; but he never managed to get any rhetorical juices flowing in his recordings with Menuhin. One almost got the impression that he made these recordings out of a sense of duty, rather than an opportunity to find new dimensions in familiar composition through the insights of a new soloist. Furthermore, if Furtwängler’s contributions to the collection were disappointing, those from Enescu, supposedly a major motivating force in Menuhin’s life, were even more so.

Most disappointing, however, are probably Menuhin’s efforts to portray himself as a modernist. Particularly frustrating is that none of his recordings with Enescu involve any of Enescu’s compositions. (The only recordings of Enescu sonatas were made with Menuhin’s sister Hephzibah.) His recordings under the baton of William Walton of both the violin and viola concertos show at least a bit of the spark encountered in the Elgar recording, as does the CD of the three Béla Bartók sonatas (one for solo violin), on which the pianist is Menuhin’s son Jeremy. However, his general interest in twentieth-century concertos and chamber music is scattershot; and it is really a pity that composers such as Andrzej Panufnik and Ernest Bloch were not given a fairer shake.

Then, sadly, there are the encounters with Shankar and Grappelli. Rudyard Kipling’s melancholy “never the twain shall meet” phrase is as applicable to the latter as to the former. Nothing on the Grappelli CD comes even close to what that man could do when he was jamming with Django Reinhardt; and, while every now and then, there is some sense that Menuhin found a way to be on the same page with Shankar, he never stayed there very long. It is almost as if this entire box had been conceived to be more about Menuhin wishing to be viewed as an enlightened citizen of the world, which seemed to mean more to him than coming to grips with the rhetorical complexities of convincing violin performance. This is not to dismiss his many humanitarian achievements but simply to recognize that they were on an entirely different plane than his efforts to be a recording artist.

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