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Yehudi Menuhin

Yehudi Menuhin

Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin

Yehudi Menuhin

Yehudi Menuhin

Photos : EMI

Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999)
Three stages in the life of a violinist

By Eric Taver

PARIS, 7 May 1999 - Extravagant tribute has been paid "to the musician and especially the man" (heard on a radio program) who was Yehudi Menuhin. Some even confused the man with the enterprises that profit from the Menuhin "logo" and prosper in its wake. They almost forgot to speak about Menuhin the violinist, the phenomenon who simultaneously astounded America between the wars, commissioned and created one of the masterpieces of the 20th century - Bartok's Sonata for solo violin - and conversed on an equal footing in the greatest concertos of the German repertoire with one of the masters of the tradition - Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Menuhin is primarily an American phenomenon. He was probably the first child violin prodigy to come from the New World and become famous there. I can think of only one predecessor: Louis Persinger. Born in Rochester, but soon forgotten as a child prodigy even though benefitting from lessons with the Belgian violinist Ysaÿe, Persinger was, between 1914 and 1915, concert master of the Berlin Philharmonic under Arthur Nikisch, before being the first great teacher of... Yehudi Menuhin. As we shall see, the career of Louis Persinger was truly a dress rehearsal for that of Menuhin, as if the United States needed a prototype before producing Menuhin.

His second great teacher, who made him feel like "a midget", was Enesco. Enesco was not American but a wanderer. In Vienna and then in Paris where he was the pupil of the Belgian Martin Marsick, Enesco was Romanian. But in his own country, he was not Romanian but Moldavian. Persinger and Enesco taught Menuhin in the style of the Franco-Belgian school, but as reinvented by exiles. In fact, Menuhin's playing was self-taught, a new style of playing, just as America is the new world.

We can more easily understand, when listening to his pre-war recordings, Menuhin's famous statement that he would like to combine "Kreisler's elegance, Elman's sonority ('the violin that speaks') and Heifetz's technique". The role model for a career in these pre-war years was, of course, Heifetz. Menuhin was born in 1916, and Heifetz arrived in the United States in 1917, where his virtuosity had the effect of an explosion: the young Yehudi's education took place while America was acclaiming Heifetz. His first recordings, the most fascinating violinistically, attest to this influence.

Heifetz, strictly from a technical point of view, is already our contemporary. We must not, however, forget that Heifetz's style, rather pretentious with his violin held very high, is not contemporary. We must wait one more generation before this feeling of a faded charm disappears definitively.

The first violinists to speak a language that is still of our time are Milstein, Oïstrakh, and Menuhin. They dominate the post-war period. Menuhin was no longer the flamboyant prodigy of earlier years. History had given him a sort of new humility, a new responsibility. In addition, having commissioned a "little piece" from Bartók, to help him out, he must, in 1944, introduce a masterpiece and struggle to master its frightening technical difficulties. Listen to the fugue from the Sonata in the 1947 recording, played slowly, obstinately, with tenacity rather than panache. Menuhin is wrestling with his own facility.

But, for Menuhin, the major post-war event was his meeting with Furtwängler. Having spent two summers with the German violinist Adolf Busch Menuhin had already discovered German culture. In rehabilitating the German conductor accused of pro-Nazi sympathy, it is also an entire tradition, German culture in its totality, that this New York Jewish violinist means to defend in the midst of America's triumphant cheers. And because he has learned to seek, to adapt, he can mold himself in accordance with Furtwängler's metaphysical vision of the Brahms Concerto. It is of course in the 1949 recording with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra that one must listen to Menuhin throw himself at the notes while taking every imaginable risk. It is here that the Menuhin we will later come to know shows his colors, the Menuhin whose left hand climbs into the stratosphere while pulling at each note, catching it at the end of a finger and vibrating it to limit the risk of going astray. Menuhin is establishing his own style, a lively sound snatched from the string (as opposed to that of Oistrakh who plays with the weight of the sound).

Menuhin's system is thus established. From that base, anything is possible, especially encounters with the most diverse aesthetic worlds. Furtwängler, but also, later, such different musicians as Wilhelm Kempff, Glenn Gould or even David Oïstrakh: who has not been moved by the performance of the two violinists in Bach's Double Concerto in Bruno Monsaingeon's film "Le Violon du siècle"? To understand Menuhin's ability to adapt, gliding into the slow movement while listening to Oïstrakh, one must compare this recording to that made with his teacher, Enesco. These are two different worlds, and nonetheless the same Menuhin. We will skip over the more exotic encounters with jazz and non-Western music, to Menuhin's encounters with himself.

Menuhin's discography contains a large number of "remakes": the well-known concertos, the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo, the Bartok... As with Furtwängler, these "remakes" are always recreations and not repetitions. The tempos, fingering, bowing, all change. The general expression (striking in the Bach) and the technique are used to seek serenity and balance, even if the hands seem to be at odds with the demands of the music.

There is thus no definitive interpretation for Menuhin, but the search for repose, for a place where music, far from any pretension, vibrates naturally, where it can breathe more than show off. This opening of musical feeling beyond technique and schools, this fierce desire to gather music at the source, can be found today in a Gidon Kremer or a Gil Shaham. It is in this sense that Menuhin's lesson remains exemplary, today more than ever: born in America when Heifetz was triumphing in the media, Menuhin died in Berlin, closer to Adolf Busch and Wilhelm Furtwängler.

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