Violin Sonatas

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Violin Sonatas
Yehudi Menuhin (Violin) Hephzibah Menuhin (Piano)

[ Naxos Historical Great Violinists / CD ]

Release Date: Tuesday 18 April 2006

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Throughout his career the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin sought out new music to perform, often commissioning works from composers, and among those who wrote for him were Béla Bartók, Lennox Berkeley, Ernest Bloch, Frank Martin and William Walton. From quite an early age, however, he had modern works in his repertoire that were not specifically connected with him, and so great was his fame in the 1930s that he was able to record two of them. It was natural that he should be drawn to the best known work for violin by his teacher George Enescu, the Sonata No. 3 'in the Romanian folk style', written in 1926.

He never forgot his initial exposure to that kind of music. 'The first gipsy I heard was when Enescu took my father and me in 1927 to Sinaia in Romania', Menuhin recalled. 'There was a little inn where a particular gypsy violinist played. It was a warm autumn evening and we sat on the balcony. It was the first time I had heard a fiddler imitate birds, groans, all the sounds of the natural world.' Although he himself could never extemporise – for later performances with Ravi Shankar and Stephane Grappelli he had to have his 'improvisations' written out – the Enescu Sonata gave Menuhin a chance to indulge his taste for gypsy music. The 1918–19 Sonata by the Italian musician Ildebrando Pizzetti was a much more enterprising choice, especially for a recording. As it happened, his teachers Enescu and Adolf Busch both knew the composer, so either of them may have suggested he learn the piece, or the stimulus may have come from Pizzetti's friend, the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, an admirer of Menuhin's playing. Whatever the reason, Yehudi and his sister Hephzibah clearly put an enormous effort into learning the sonata and giving it the best possible performance, rising to great heights in the central Prayer for the Innocents; and as they never had the opportunity to record it again, their 1938 performance has great rarity value.

Hephzibah Menuhin was born in San Francisco on 20th May 1920 and made her début there in 1928. Among her teachers were Adolf Busch's sonata partner Rudolf Serkin in Basel and Marcel Ciampi in Paris. She started playing sonatas seriously with Yehudi in 1933, recorded Mozart's A major Sonata, K526, with him that September and – having made further visits to the studios in the meantime – first appeared with him in public at the Salle Pleyel, Paris, on 13th October 1934. For a time following her first marriage in 1938 she lived in Australia, but after the Second World War she settled in London, where she remarried. A woman of firm principles, she was known to open her house to vagrants and other down-and-outs. As a musician she was happiest in Mozart, although she covered a wide repertoire. Her recordings include Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet with members of the Amadeus Quartet, Mozart concertos with her brother conducting, trios with Yehudi and Maurice Gendron – their collaboration lasted 25 years – and sonatas with Yehudi, among which should be mentioned those by Bartók, Enescu and Franck. She died in London on New Year's Day 1981 after a long illness. Her brother wrote of her: 'Such was Hephzibah's sensitivity that she did not need many words. She was an extraordinary instrument, almost an extension of myself.'

Born in New York on 22nd April 1916, Yehudi Menuhin died in Berlin on 12th March 1999. Between those dates he metamorphosed from the child of obscure Russian immigrants into Baron Menuhin of Stoke d'Abernon, perhaps the best-known musician in the world and a sort of international statesman. He was brought up initially in San Francisco and, after two years of lessons with Siegmund Anker, began studies with Persinger in 1923. Two years later he gave his first full solo recital. Then, in 1926, came his New York début, his concerto début in San Francisco and his first trip to Europe, where he studied in Paris with Enescu apart from two summers in Basel with Adolf Busch. From 1931 the family, who lived off Yehudi's earnings, established their home near Paris, and the following year the boy recorded Elgar's Violin Concerto under the composer's direction. After his world tour in 1935 he took an eighteen-month sabbatical and then entered on a disastrous first marriage: his parents had not prepared him for real life. Many wartime concerts and a 1945 tour of the German death camps with Benjamin Britten were followed by a successful second marriage and a career lived in the limelight. In due course he took up conducting, making numerous recordings in that rôle, and although he never had much time available for teaching, he founded schools in England and Switzerland. The public, nevertheless, continued to associate him with the violin, even when he had given up playing it, and much of Menuhin's later life was spent trying to reconcile his increasing musical mastery with his diminishing control over his instrument.

The Enescu recording was made in Paris, so that the composer could be at the sessions. Although this decision probably compromised the sound quality a little – neither the Parisian engineers nor their machines were the equal of those in London – it helped the young duo to give of their best. They already loved the piece. 'We knew it when the ink was barely dry. We almost created the work when we first learned it at the Ville d'Avray in 1932,' Menuhin recalled, exaggerating a bit, as Enescu and Niculae Caravia had given the première as early as 1927. What was true was that the sonata was still in manuscript when the Menuhins first essayed it (only in 1933 was it published). In 1959, with many more performances behind them, brother and sister took the sonata into the studio again and achieved a more mature interpretation, but this astonishing early effort was not by any means eclipsed. It appears that Yehudi and Hephzibah also got to know the Pizzetti in the summer of 1932, as Yehudi programmed it on his nationwide tour of Britain that autumn. In this case the recording was made in London, and it caught the tone of Yehudi's violin particularly well, especially the many high-flying passages on the E string. The work is a fine one, dating from the time when Pizzetti was one of the major hopes of Italian music, and the recording is one of the best souvenirs of the Menuhin duo's first phase. The solo Bach should not be judged too harshly. Set down after the thirteen-year-old Menuhin had been studying the work with Busch, it finds him trying to match his teacher's long bows, something he never quite mastered – he followed Enescu in making an undue number of bow changes, a trait which may have contributed to both men's physical problems in later life. In due course Menuhin restudied the C major Sonata with Enescu, adopting some of the Romanian's more romantic attitudes, and in 1934 he recorded it again, as part of a project including the other five solo Bach works. Even then he did not quite catch the sonata's essence, and if one could rewrite recording history, one might choose to have Enescu record the unaccompanied Bach in the 1930s and Menuhin in the 1940s, rather than the other way round – which was how it actually happened. But if Menuhin's mature Bach, especially his recordings from 1956-57, were to encapsulate his special qualities better, it is still amazing to hear how well he could play Bach at the age of thirteen.


Violin Sonata No. 1 in A major
Violin Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op. 25, "dans le caractere populaire roumain"
Violin Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005