BBC Legends BBCL 4170, 74:28 (Distrib. Koch) ****:
I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) perform the Elgar Violin Concerto in Atlanta with Louis Lane, a piece he had recorded with the composer in 1932. This performance from a Royal Festival Hall concert 2 February 1965 finds the 49-year-old Menuhin in good if not perfect form technically; but his emotional savvy in this grand, valedictory work is beyond dispute. The program had been the occasion for Sir Michael Tippett’s 60th birthday, particularly to the composer’s own reading of A Child of Our Time. Critics at the time called Menuhin’s account “searching” – an epithet which captures well the piercing, high gloss the veteran violinist projects, along with the most vocal string intonation. The lilting theme in the first movement and the whole second movement, doubtless composed with the Brahms Concerto in mind, elicits from Menuhin and Adrian Boult (1889-1983) a solemn beauty.
The third movement, a sprawling Allegro molto, proceeds rhapsodically, with lyrical moments and a clear recollection of the secondary theme from the first movement Allegro. The violin part asks Menuhin to explore the sundry voices of his instrument’s deep viola sonority and high flute tone. When Boult enters for the last statements of the opening motifs, now with added staccato figures, there is a palpable sense of a stiff upper lip, the job-well-done in the most C. Aubrey Smith tradition. The plunging chords in conclusion, with their clarion sense of valediction, bring the house down.
Elgar’s own version of the baroque concerto grosso, his 1905 Introduction and Allegro, comes to us from a 4 September 1975 performance with a frail Adrian Boult who was 86- years-old at a BBC Promenade concert. The tempos are deliberate, even slow, but the heartiness of expression has diminished not a whit. The tugs in the rhythmic flux have energy as well as mystery – a decided, intimate fervor and dramatic breadth. The concertino element has a quality of an old Italian serenade. The fugue manages to dance its strict contrapuntal figures, the busyness of the piece apparent at every bar. The romantic pulsation and rhetorical variety of the piece maintain their tension for us throughout what is an inspired realization of this tricky and virtuosic piece. The last work on this program, the Funeral March, derives from incidental music Elgar wrote in 1901 for a play by George Moore and W.B. Yeats. Boult’s studio performance from Barking Town Hall, London (26 November 1969) conveys something of a sonic debt to Sibelius, whose musical spirit, perhaps from Pelleas and Melisande, seems quite close. The delicacy of orchestration more than once recalls moments from the slow movement of Sibelius’ E Minor Symphony. Once the sad march finds its own cadence, it recalls the opening of the composer’s own A-flat Major Symphony. Tympani and oboe make for several affecting touches.