Stars in short pants (6): Menuhin, 13

Stars in short pants (6): Menuhin, 13


norman lebrecht

September 09, 2020

Herbert Giesen is the pianist.


  • violin accordion says:

    Such a stunning range of expression, dynamics finesse and language

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Yehudi Menuhin was an instinctual violinist and musician – he seemed to have the goods from his earliest years.
    And this recording is typical: glorious tone and a buoyant energy that is totally infectious.
    Go Yehudi!

  • enricomontebello says:

    Hubert Giesen

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Question to violinists: how was Menuhin’s technique, as a child and adult? To what extent did he go through a crisis with his technique in his late teens?

    I am not a violinist, and don’t understand much about technique on this instrument. But for more than forty years I am always blown away by the musicality and sound of Yehudi Menuhin, young and less young. So I am confused with the stories that circulate about his technique.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      And violinists and violin teachers and others have been mulling over that question for decades. There is no agreement on the nature of the problems and thus no agreement on the causes. And some of his most ardent fans deny that the problems ever existed. Even some critics were guilty of lavishing phrases like “playing as well as ever” when it obviously wasn’t true, and the more you heard the early recordings the more untrue you knew it to be.

      What I will grant those critics is that Menuhin was inconsistent in his problems and certain there are examples where sometimes he plays better in 1970 than he did in 1945, and now and then after 1970 could play pretty darn well but always with some reservation.

      When I interviewed Steven Staryk (who had many opportunities to hear Menuhin up close and personal from his concertmaster positions) for Fanfare, he remembered recording sessions where EMI had to do take after take after take to create something that they could release, and he specifically mentioned a Tchaikovsky Concerto, which he called a Frankenstein recording. But Staryk did point out that no matter how poorly it seemed Menuhin was playing (and I have a Ravel Trio recording that I regard as actually unlistenable, nor can I abide the LPs he made with Stéphane Grappelli ) he always pulled himself together for Bartok.

      Staryk also said, perhaps with a bit of bitterness given his own experience with record companies, that the reason we heard so many of Menuhin’s struggles was the very generous nature of his contract (he said it was a lifetime contract) with EMI that called for recordings to be made and released each year. If Staryk is correct, and he is the ultimate insider’s insider, EMI couldn’t cast Menuhin adrift if they wanted to. And I have no complaints when that resulted in things like his two excellent recordings of the unaccompanied Bartok sonata, or the Carl Nielsen Concerto, just by way of examples.

      Menuhin himself had a variety of theories, one of which was that the noisy nature of 78 rpm record surfaces masked things about his playing that became more evident as the fidelity of recordings improved. He said he was not the only violinist who spanned the eras of recording technology to experience that. I will grant him the point but these days they can work miracles with 78 rpm sound in terms of digging out what was recorded but not always audible, but now is.

      His other theory is that as he matured many things that came so naturally to a child stopped coming naturally, and not just violin things. Menuhin more than once alluded to how difficult he found the transition to adulthood to be on a number of fronts including his first marriage. Another valid point and Ruggiero Ricci said his own playing went through a crisis period as he matured – he said unlike as a child, you start to think things through, you make choices, you accept or reject ideas, and suddenly (although Ricci did not make this analogy) it is like the centipede who can walk only when it doesn’t think about how to walk.

      Stated another way, we are spared hearing the problems of other child prodigy violinists who cannot make the transition because they just disappear. Menuhin (and Ricci) worked hard not to disappear. But in their own very different ways, their violin sounds changed from prodigy to adult. Both were Louis Persinger pupils as were a number of other prodigies of that time. Some such as Guila Bustabo and Arnold Eidus also had violinistic and/or personality problems with leaving prodigy-ism behind. But plenty of others had fine careers so unlike some violinists I do not blame Persinger. What was he to do with such wonders as Menuhin and Ricci playing the most difficult music with so little needed to be added?

      Even when Menuhin was still quite youthful Fritz Kreisler was quoted as saying that he and others he knew predicted that Menuhin would have issues and challenges (violinistic ones) as he moved into adulthood. I think what Kreisler was hearing was the slight issues Menuhin sometimes had as a child with matching changes of bow with changes of finger (although as his youthful Paganini recordings show, he could nail those changes as often as not). But now and then you hear it at least slightly going even to early recordings.

      What I hear from Menuhin starting in the 1940s is a sense that he was losing confidence in his shifting of positions (left hand), and judging bow pressure and bow changes in his right hand.

      You (by which I mean, mere mortals who take up the violin) work endlessly as a student to make shifting and bow pressure changes automatic and effortless, and you continue to work on that in your scale studies every day forever. Book after book of etudes and caprices make you work at this until it is second nature, but it has to be kept in shape.

      Well, what about the child genius who does NOT need to work like that? They zip through those etudes and caprices and perhaps the teacher says, OK well you sure have mastered that, so enough, and now let’s work on the Joachim cadenza to the Brahms Concerto instead (which after all is what the teacher would rather work on anyway). They skip the drill and the repetition because why should they do it? It’s already there. But the repetition and drill is NOT just so that it will be there today — it needs to be there forever in muscle memory. That is what might get skipped. After all Menuhin himself told the story of how he played for Ysaye and Ysaye asked for simple scales and Menuhin was ashamed at how awkwardly he played them, because he had never had to drill them and drill them.

      What I find personally disorienting is that I do not SEE those right and left hand problems in films that were made. Visually Menuhin “looks” like a virtuoso even in films from late in life such as his Brahms Concerto where you sure hear the struggle. He never looks distressed but he sounds distressed.

      My late father was no violinist but he heard plenty of great ones and his father was a violinist and violin maker. He heard Menuhin during his prodigy/ miracle years and said the entire way he walked out onstage looked wrong to him. And he thought the violin approach although perfect in its own way, was weak and not assertive enough for his tastes. He was actually more impressed by Menuhin’s playing when, pretty late in life, Yehudi came to Milwaukee and played the Mendelssohn Concerto and Bartok Concerto No 1 in the same concert. We heard both the rehearsal and the concert. And yes that sense that you worried that violin and bow might both actually fall out of Menuhin’s hands and go crashing to the stage floor was present throughout, but that violin sound! It was big and luminous and seemed to come at you from everywhere in the hall. Sure he had a great fiddle but you still need a certain application of bow to string to get that sound, and he still had it. And while difficult passages were sometimes smudged (as if what his left hand had just done came as a surprise to his right hand), his approach throughout to both pieces was that of a confident virtuoso, and it was hugely enjoyable flaws and all.

      Sorry I have gone on too long. All that verbiage to basically say “beats me!”

    • Novagerio says:

      Yehudi claimed himself that he had bad bow technique.

  • Edgar Self says:

    I didn’t recognise him from the photo; yoga head-stands may have altered his feaures. It’s a professional performance. Within a few years he was recording Elgar with Elgar; Bach’s double with his teacher Enesco; a “Symphonie espagnole” to rival Milstein; and a magical hausson “Poeme” wih Enesco conductin a Paris orchestra..

    It was a musical family: pianistsHlepzibah and Yaltah, Jeremy, son-in-law Foo Ts’ong for a time, and taskmaster father Moshe, who joined Yehudi in courageously defending Furtwaengler after careful investigation. By 1947 Yehudi was back in Berlin, performing and recording with Furtwaengler there and in London and luerne concertos of Bartok, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Beethoven, and the two Romances.

    I saw him and Hepzibah in recital around 1960 in San Francisco Opera House, with the Kreutzer I think. His early teacher Louis Persinger was concertmaster of SFSO. The family had a music school in Los Gatos hills for gifted youngsters.

    His recordings of Purcell’s “Golden Sonata” and Handel oboe concrtos with Leon Goosens are other happy memories. He championed Guillaume Lekeu’s sonata and Schumann’s dark late concerto that Clara and Brahms had suppressed. He also was a philosophic internationalist for yoga, vegetarianism, peace, and charities.

  • Edgar Self says:

    A thousand thanks, David Nelson, for writing at length your thoughts on Menuhin and violinistics, not one word too long.

    “One day the prodigy is gone, and only the child remains.”