Yehudi Menuhin Conducts Mozart (CD review)

Yehudi Menuhin, Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, Sinfonia Varsovia, English Chamber Orchestra. Virgin 7243 5 61678 2 7 (5-disc set).

I've never been big on recommending sets of anything. More often, one can find individual performances by different conductors that bring more consistent pleasure. Yet occasionally one finds a boxed set of something that has so many outstanding virtues it's hard not to commend. Such is the case with Yehudi Menuhin's 1989-90 recordings of late Mozart symphonies, plus various odds and ends, boxed up on five discs from Virgin Classics. Menuhin (1916-1999) had turned to conducting in his later years, the stress of playing the violin finally becoming too demanding for him. He seemed to have been about as successful at the new endeavor as he was at the old.

The five CD's in this low-priced package include Symphonies Nos. 35, 36, 38, 39, 40, and 41, coupled with the two Flute Concertos, the Flute and Harp Concerto, the Divertimento in D major, KV136, the Serenade in D major, KV239 "Serenata notturna", the Serenade in D major, KV320 "Posthorn," and two marches. Menuhin's own orchestra at the time, the Sinfonia Varsovia, plays the symphonies, the English Chamber Orchestra plays the concertos, and the Orchestra de Chambre de Lausanne plays the serenades.

Yehudi Menuhin
All of the performances are characterized by Menuhin's obvious love and affection for the music. Speeds are zesty but never breathless or out of control. Phrasing is imaginative but never idiosyncratic to the point of distraction. Dynamic contrasts are wide but flexible and never overpowering. These are enthusiastic, quick-footed interpretations that, nevertheless, almost always sound right. What's more, the three small orchestras involved come across light enough to produce as fleet and intimate a sound as the readings demand.

The most obvious comparison I had on hand for a large set of Mozart symphonies by a smallish ensemble was Daniel Barenboim's late Sixties-early Seventies collection of recordings with the English Chamber Orchestra. These recordings have long been among my favorite Mozart, and Menuhin's newer editions, digital or no, do not displace them in my affections. There is the possible exception of No. 41, the "Jupiter," however, which does have a greater forward momentum under Menuhin than under Barenboim. Nevertheless, interestingly enough, I preferred the EMI analogue sonics to those of the newer Virgin renditions. Barenboim's orchestral sound appears more detailed to me and the stage presence has greater depth. Menuhin's orchestra may project more warmth but loses something in overall sparkle, leaning a bit to the top and bottom ends of the spectrum.

Mozart comes in all varieties these days, from small period-instrument presentations to mammoth, full-orchestra treatments, and all of them have their place. One of the best compromises, though, is probably the chamber-orchestra approach, and since Barenboim's EMI set might prove hard to find anymore, Menuhin's set (or the single-disc editions available on Erato) may be a good alternative. Certainly, one can hardly go wrong.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa