Yehudi Menuhin: The Violin of the Century – A film by Bruno Monsaingeon

by | Feb 15, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Yehudi Menuhin: The Violin of the Century – A film by Bruno Monsaingeon

Studio: EMI Classics DVB 3101899 
Video: 4:3 Color and Black & White
Audio: PCM Mono, remastered for Dolby Digital
Length: 129:28
Rating: *****

This remarkable souvenir-portrait opens with strains of Schubert’s Ave Maria, and we see an old 78 rpm record and some flapping music pages. Then we cut to a villa by the sea, where in 1994 the barefoot Menuhin is studying a score; and while director Monsaingeon narrates his remorse that he was born to late to witness the youthful Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) perform, he exclaims that his researches have uncovered rare 1943 footage of Menuhin playing this very piece.  Cut to Menuhin’s own regard for his youthful self, then back to the old film. “I became suddenly very famous after this film was shown–on the ‘bumble bee scale'” quips Menuhin. Then cut to 1943 and Rimsky-Korsakov. “This backward glance is bittersweet,” Menuhin comments. “I wanted to be able to ‘justify’ my actions – a curious Talmudic impulse,” he notes. “I was very passionate, very homesick when I was in Paris, and it all went into the music.” Cut to black and white footage of Bach’s Air on the G String with Menuhin and orchestra with Dorati from “Concert Magic.” The old guru comments on his youthful incarnation: “Very nice.  I was rather pleased with my perfect left hand.”  Cut to Sarasate, one of several moments exempt from Concert Magic. “I can’t play Sarasate anymore, but I will conduct Carmen.”

Menuhin tells a story about his naming, “the Jew.”  His destiny before he was born. Menuhin calls his name “an extraordinary passport.” He recalls his family having been very happy, until he began to play the violin. He calls the old-world Yeshivas “claustrophobic,” which drove his father to leave for America. Period pictures of his father and mother. “My mother adored Italy, a wild, impetuous young girl.  I was born into worship. I was treated like the Infant Jesus. Shots of Menuhin with Thibaud; home movies of him and Hephzibah on a swing. “I have never had to face an opponent,” he ponders. Two adoring sisters. “Hephzibah had a mind so clear; Yaltah was a dreamer. Yaltah always had to please, but poor love, she could never please our mother.” Menuhin describes his daily regimen, dictated by his mother. “It was a good schedule. You had to practice what you loved to do. Like a bird, playing the violin should come as naturally as flying.” Cut to Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs from Concert Magic. Menuhin on a yogi’s carpet: “When will I be able to vibrate?  I used to wonder. I couldn’t sing without a lovely sound.”

Menuhin traces his pedagogy, his quest to learn under Louis Persinger. “Persinger played the Adagio from the G Minor Solo Sonata of Bach–so beautifully. My mother and I realized that here was the object of playing–to make music like that!  We hear from conductor Paul Paray–first in concert with the Mendelssohn, 1979–then in reminiscences of young Menuhin’s having impressed Paray in 1927 Paris, at the urging of Georges Enesco, to play with the Lamoureux Orchestra. They played Lalo, and Paray was overwhelmed. Menuhin was presented a plaque on the occasion of his first European concerts. Then studies with Enesco. The Romantic temperament and purity.  Besides the Brahms Concerto, which Menuhin bowed in an irregular pattern and earned Enesco’s praise, he took up Enesco’s A Minor Sonata. It was Enesco who sent Menuhin to Adolf Busch, for the German training, 1929-1930. Menuhin notes that at age 12, he commanded a fee ten times that which the veteran Busch received, a man who had played thousands of concerts. “But I needed Enesco,” claims Menuhin, “especially for chamber music.” Cut to Wieniawski from Concert Magic. “I wanted more,” says Menuhin. “The music I most wanted to play escaped me–it was Kreisler, an un-Russian, un-Jewish sense of sophistication and elegance.” Shots of Kreisler and Menuhin, then a 1987 Leibesleid with Postnikova at the piano.

The first recordings began around 1928. “Hearing oneself was a totally new thing, except for the echo.” Menuhin performs the Beethoven Concerto in Carnegie Hall in 1928, then three concertos in a single evening in Berlin, under Bruno Walter. An unprecedented career is in full swing. Invitations from Toscanini, Mengelberg, Fritz Busch. An early marriage. Pictures of Menuhin and Elgar, in their famed recording in 1932 of the composer’s Violin Concerto. Cut to a contemporary performance with the New York Philharmonic c. 1960s.  Menuhin sings his own recollection of Elgar’s melancholy, dreamy second theme from the first movement. Cut to pictures from WW II, when Menuhin, aged 25, had to play three concerts per day. “I learned direct communication with the audience,” he recalls. “Each individual had to be reached and touched.” He plays Dvorak’s Songs My Mother Taught Me. We have footage from the Aleutians, and actor Allen Jenkins, New York accent hugely thick, introduces Mr. Menuhin. He plays Schubert’s Ave Maria, what Menuhin calls “a hope for eternal justice.” The downside of playing during the War,” he muses, is that “I could not refresh my technique. I could not practice, only work.” We cut to Paris, just after the Liberation. Munch and Menuhin will perform Mendelssohn and Lalo.  “The crowning achievement of the War was Diana [Gould], although we didn’t marry until I could be free of my [first] marriage.”  Menuhin plays in Berlin, 1947. He is greeted by Sergiu Celibidache. We hear an excerpt from the Bach Chaconne. “People objected not to the principle of my playing in Berlin, but to my working with Furtwaengler. He drew music. Music transcended the reality of the day. His Germany was not the Nazi rabble of gangsters. Just let loose the murderers and give the clever ones power. Heifetz had founded the American Union of Musical Artists. He said, “We must defend the American union against the soloists who will be coming in after the war – That’s why I did not join.”

Memories take a sympathetic turn with Hephzibah. The Franck Sonata in full throttle. Then the Chausson Concert. “The only return to her childhood and music in her last years was with me.” Hephzibah remembers Yehudi as a violinist. She calls it “the ideal relationship; camaraderie without rivalry.” It was Monteux who urged that sister and brother play together; so, in 1932, they played at the Salle Pleyel, Yehudi 16, Hephzibah 12. Horowitz, Piatigorsky, and Menuhin played trios; sometimes Hephzibah replaced Horowitz. Cut to the Schubert B-flat Trio, 1964, Yehudi and Maurice Gendron. We see a wicked performance of Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses, just to remind us that Hephzibah could have had her own solo career. Menuhin grants that she flowered during the War, especially in Australia. She became obsessed with orphans and the miseries of the world, perhaps to expiate some part of herself. She became an ascetic, a monastic. She had so much suppressed emotion. “If I had fed that part of her nature; maybe her lovers knew this of her. I failed my sister Hephzibah, to speak to her of her deep emotional life.”

Chapter V is devoted to musical encounters, rife with personalities: Colin Davis, Casals, Rozhdestvensky, Oistrakh, Busch, Fricsay, Karajan, Ozawa, Fischer-Dieskau, Rostropovich, Kempff, Gould, Postnikova. Menuhin recalls Fricsay, whom he calls “a mastermind; elegant; the most beautiful conductor to look at, very intense.” They play the Adagio from the Brahms Concerto, 1961. Menuhin collected photographs from all the conductors. He enjoys recalling Bruno Walter, “the most perfect accompanist, whom Toscanini called ‘a sentimental fool.'” Cut to 1966  for Mozart’s Turkish Concerto with Karajan. “Amusing,” remarks Menuhin. “The music does not live, does it?  He was a poseur. A very beautiful man.” They play The Blue Danube together. “His greatest effort was to remain young. When old age caught up with him, it brought out something that had been missing.” Menuhin had to substitute for Karajan in Berlin, to lead the Brahms symphonies. Cut to Bach Cantata 13, obbligato violin against Fischer-Dieskau and Rostropovich’s continuo, 1974.

Then to Wilhelm Kempff in the G Major Sonata of Beethoven. “Extraordinary serenity in those opening twelve bars of Beethoven. Enesco and Gould did it equally well. Menuhin calls Glenn Gould “mystical, a divine presence.” Cut to Viktoria Postnikova in the Bartok First Sonata. Then Kreisler’s Liebesleid. Pictures of Sviatoslav Richter. Richter had a little house with tiny little windows to which he would retire. Bartok Violin Concerto full throttle with Rozhdestvensky. Most fond memories of Bartok, especially the Solo Sonata which Menuhin commissioned and introduced. Through Antal Dorati Menuhin came to know Bartok’s distinct harmonic idiom. Cut to a 1961 reading of the Solo Sonata by Bartok. In the old footage, Bartok looks agile and healthy.

Menuhin speaks of inevitability and destiny–he speaks highly of Sarasate who brought him close to the Spanish and Gypsy cultures. Sarasate’s violin imitates birds. Menuhin mentions Enesco, of course, for the Slavic Gypsy tradition.  The speed of the Roumanian gypsy is unbelievable. Menuhin addresses his school, the possibility of passing on the tradition of composition, improvisation, general musicianship. We have a 1955 black and white video of Menuhin with Duke Ellington. Menuhin says jazz has the same rhythms as classical; so he and Ellington play Black, Brown and Beige. With Stephane Grappelli Menuhin takes a hot version of Jalousie in 1971. “Grappelli and Ravi refreshed me,” claims Menuhin. Recalling the “East Meets West” album, we see Menuhin and Ravi Shankar in Raga Piloo, 1967. Some Creole a la Menuhin, with the Andre Gagnon Orchestra. Menuhin plays a cadenza he wrote for Mozart’s K. 219 Concerto, the last six bars by Enesco. Menuhin practices his Yoga, over which he speaks on the playing of the violin, a sound “that would raise the dead.” Speaking of the application of vibrato, Menuhin says he wanted to reconcile the piston movement with the wave motion. Cut to Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs, 1947, with Baller. “I’ve always admired the ‘natural’ violinists, those who play without having practiced scales, etc. I’ve had the burden of playing but also having to understand–what is it about?” Cut to Caprice in A Minor by Paganini, 1947.   In 1937 Menuhin took a sabbatical; but he worried incessantly how he was to begin again. “I’m always amazed that I could play as much as a virtuoso as anybody; yet, I wasn’t trained for that.”

We lastly confront Lord Yehudi Menuhin, first via Monty Python. Cut to the Bach Preludio from the Partita No. 3 in E, 1976. “Sheer music opens all the doors,” he exults. “I would use political power with no regard to a second term. . .One can plant seeds. I came to bring reconciliation and peace. I became, I believe, the mos trusted friend of the Israelis. . .but I wasn’t one with them in their attitude with their native Arabs. . .to heal and to help is our task.” Menuhin relates a childhood dream: “If I could play the Chaconne of Bach well enough, in the Sistine Chapel, under the eyes of Michelangelo, perhaps it would heal all the world’s ills.”

The Bonus tracks include Bloch’s Abodah and the Ravel Kaddish (28 October 1972) with Yit-Kin Seow, piano, filmed by the ORTF, Paris. The camera superimposes the two performers in the midst of Bloch’s Hassidic chant. The Kaddish elicits some sweeping chords from Seow, while the camera is consumed by Menuhin’s rapt face against the chin rest. The last piece arises out of the darkness: Fuga from Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin, filmed by ORTF, Paris, 3 December 1971. These are our last images of Menuhin in this video, playing eyes closed the sonata he commissioned from the terminally ill Bartok.  Framed against a green-beige empty wall, Menuhin’s orange-red shirt blends with the burnished wood of his violin. The camera superimposes Menuhin against the strings and bow of his own playing. Fast crosscutting as the music literally heats up. Two final chords. Menuhin drops his bow arm, possibly pleased with the sounds he has just made.

–Gary Lemco

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