INKPOT#55 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: BEETHOVEN/MENDELSSOHN Violin Concertos. Menuhin/Furtwängler (EMI References)
Violin Concerto in D major, op.Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E minor, op.64
(Lord) YEHUDI MENUHIN violin
conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler
Mono. Digitally remastered in 1984/1999.
EMI Great Recordings of the Century CDM 5 66990-2
by Derek Lim
ANYONE who has knows where my CD-buying preferences lean to will know that I have a very large proportion of so-called “historical” recordings, usually taken before the stereo era and are thus in mono sound. There’s life beyond DDD recordings and sometimes, in listening to some of these and reading a little, one can learn quite a bit about events in the world at that time.Wilhelm Furtwängler was one of the greatest conductors ever, possibly the greatest conductor on record. As an artist and as a person Furtwängler was by far one of the most charismatic, legendary – and controversial.
Before the second world war, the so-called pre-war period, Furtwängler had established a career of considerable repute. His flair for conducting showed especially in the works of Beethoven, Wagner and Brahms. Ironically, his love for music was to bring himself considerable suffering. The notorious Adolf Hitler, Fhrer of Deutschland was also a great lover of the antisemetic Richard Wagner’s works, and he admired Furtwängler’s conducting to no end. It has been said that after one production of the opera Lohengrin, he went to the unnamed conductor, telling him that the tenor had sung the wrong words at a particular point.
Hitler’s hope for Germany, a warped product of early eugenics and misguided nationalism, was to create a pure “Aryan” society, by systematically eliminating the Jewish population, deemed to be inferior genetically. During the war, he found it necessary to bring out “Aryan” talents to show that his ideas were worth pursuing. Born of pure Germanic origin, and therefore of “Aryan” blood, Furtwängler was therefore held up as a shining pillar of the great German conducting tradition – the “Aryan” conducting tradition.
Furtwängler was given the chance to migrate out of Germany, rather than to continue conducting and be part of the atrocities that were occuring in his Vaterland. However he believed the truth in his music and his conducting would vindicate him from such insinuations. Furthermore, he also wanted to help Jewish musicans who were subject to Hitler’s caprices.
During the war, he conducted frequently, and was often broadcast over the radio network of Germany. When the war ended, Furtwängler was investigated for war crimes as he was considered one of the Nazis. He was not allowed to perform in public and was kept away from his beloved Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, while he was “de-nazified”. Wilhelm Mengelberg, conductor of the Concertgebouw suffered a similar fate.
IT WAS NOT until the late 1940s that Menuhin, who had heard of Furtwängler’s enormous reputation, and was full of admiration for him through recordings of various Beethoven and Brahms performances, decided to investigate for himself the damaging insinuations. He found no evidence of Furtwängler being a Nazi, and decided to collaborate with him. Because of Menuhin’s own reputation as a humanist, Furtwängler was largely vindicated, even though many anti-Furtwänglerians still believed the contrary. In 1951, Furtwängler was again chosen to open the Bayreuth Festspielsaal, an honour which the German society believed belonged only to an artist of Furtwängler’s stature. His besmirched reputation was once again unsullied. The recording which I have stated above is a monument to the collaboration of these two great humanists and great artists.Though recorded in mono sound, these recordings feature brightly lit sound, with the violin comfortably placed, and the orchestra well-recorded. Walter Legge’s Philharmonia Orchestra was purportedly the best in the world at that time, featuring such players as Dennis Brain in the horn section. Menuhin and Furtwängler clearly treated the Beethoven as the great concerto that it is – the opening orchestral introduction is wonderfully conducted – at a moderate pace. Gentle rubato and thundering orchestral tuttis are the order of the day. When the soloist comes in, the effect is the pure magic that it should be. Menuhin is often impulsive, but Furtwängler proves a willing collaborator in this impulsiveness and gives worthy accompaniment. The second movement features a little faulty orchestra entry in the horns somewhere in the middle.
The Adagio is one of beautiful stasis, made more wonderful by Menuhin’s playing, which had not yet faltered. The third movement is playful and jolly, and everyone involved in this recording seems to have great fun here. I often liken the finale to a merry chase between a butterfly (the violin) and a cat (the orchestra). In this case the orchestra is a big fat cat, agile nonetheless, yellow with white stripes. In the orchestral tuttis it bounds after the violin’s theme with great pleasure. The violin teases continually, the cat always proves the worthy pursuer. This is a chase, but a fun one, and the cat and the butterfly are friends!
THE E-MINOR Mendelssohn, “the jewel in the heart of all the violin concertos” (Joseph Joachim) is treated heavily and dramatically – an alternative from the more “comfortable” readings. Taken very romantically, with the timpani at the beginning sounding loud and clear, soloist and conductor take the listener for a real ride – sample the first movement, where there is a real sense of “settling” into the work, rather than being at the surface all the time. Menuhin takes the cadenza very well. His playing is fiery in both concertos, though not lacking in poetry. The second movement is never badly played, and Menuhin’s sweet tone is shown off well here. The wonderful sparkling third movement is a little of a disappointment, but only at the beginning, where the slow tempo doesn’t seem to work so well. But this takes off too, and ends very satisfactorily.The Menuhin/Furtwängler collaborations at live performances must have been those that are only dreamt of nowadays, judging from these recordings. To anyone who hasn’t heard these works before, this will prove a worthy first recording which you will return to. To everyone who heard these works to death, get this CD for a taste of something special.
This slice of history has a interesting turn – apparently during the war Furtwängler was asked to conduct for the Nazi campaign, which he rejected outright. This angered Hitler, who went searching for a replacement Furtwängler. This eventually turned out to be Karajan, who was in fact by records part of the movement. Goes to show that no matter what, some things never change — the sun will always rise from the east, Windows 98 will continue to crash periodically and politics when interfering with culture will remain blind – more or less.
In Singapore, this disc is available at or can be ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City), Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City), HMV (The Heeren) or Borders (Wheelock Place).
204: 14.6.98. up.14.8.1999 Derek Lim