July 2010

Lord Menuhin. The Great, the Bad and the Interesting bit.

July 24, 2010 19:35



in one of the responses to my last blog Pauline mentioned that Menuhin is frequently said to have played out of tune and/or had  a sloppy technique.  Here are my idle thoughts on those idle thoughts.

Things are never as simple as they seem...;)

I always remember Perlman saying on `The Art of Violin,` that when he was on form there was no-one better.   To me  this is a demonstration of expert insight and integrity.   If one kicks that sentence around a little bit he is saying a number of things at once.  First he is pointing out something that as a musician ,  expert violinist one cannot deny:   at his very best there wasn`t anyone better.  But,  the way it is worded crucially reminds people that he is not, at the same time saying the top players are worse (Heifetz e al). he is saying that the greats are equivalent and it is down to personal preference at this level. To say Heifetz is better than Milstein or whatever is neither objective or useful.  At the same time he is honoring the truth by saying very politely that Menuhin did not have a level of consistency with the other great players.  That is honest and framed in a very profesional way.

The Brits sort of embraced Menuhin at the end of his career ( we like people with talent who can`t get their act together in the important moments. It makes us feel warm and cuddly. Also connected to losing the Empire)  This meant that I heard Menuhin countless times on TV and the Radio, as a brash young know all teenager, and mostly heard him at his worst. Very dogmatic then, as a Heifetz afficando,  about what a waste of space he was. I finally heard him live at the end of his career playing the Berg violin concerto.   It was excruciating because he was having so much trouble getting his bow one the string and the audience wa s becoming more and more stressed out. Finally something clikced and he played just one passage so poetically  with such feeling and power everybody just let out a collective sigh.  That was enough. We went home content and he menuhin bandwaggon struggled gamely on.

As far as the less thoughtful critiques of Menuhin are concerned there are a few aspects to the intonation. First of all he was a violinist who liked to play n the sharp side with his vibrato often travelling above the note. To some people this is okay to others it is disturbing and they can`t listen to him.   Whether this is actually wrong,  the jury is still somewhat out I think.   Then as he got older I belive he started hearing things flat or rather needing to hear things sharper, whichever way you want to put it and this became very uncomfortable at times.  However, all this is relative to the overall pitch and it is not very discerning to say he is simply playing out of tune if the relative position of the notes is correct.

The other inaccurate aspect of this critique is to confuse hitting wrong notes with playing out of tune.  It is not quite the same thing.

Anyway,  I don`t no if it was just a fluke but it does seem to me that he sort of came to terms with all his difficulties right a the end of his career and produces in `The ARt of Violin` a performance of the Chaccone which sets a standard in moving beyond the instrument into the realm of pure music making.  This might sound a bit arty fart and I know a lot of people just think that perfomance is rough and sloppy but I rate it as something very special.  In a similar vein I think of SzigetI`s last recordinng of the Brahms concerto which was reputedly a nightmare session on the first day and suddenly came together to produce a recording that for all its faults belongs in the realm of pure music making of the highest order.  It may not suit modern ears which are used to being wooed by perfection and often a great deal of uniformly big sound but if you really want to know Brahms that is the yardstick.

So,like Perlman so astutely says,  `On form there really wasn`t anyone better.`  To see the best and how wrong things could get simply compare the two versions of the Scherzo Tarantelle on youtube.   Mostly what I pick up form the second is a sense of panic.  But For a reminder once again of how deeply he could move us take a look at the cellists face when he is playing a solo in the slow movement of the Schubert b minor piano trio DVD.  A musician of almost the same stature looking at him with nothing less than star struck awe.





15 replies | Archive link

A cornflakian theory of violinists.

July 20, 2010 15:15


of the very little I have learnt over the years perhaps the most significant thing is that cultures can be understood in terms of their relationship to cornflakes.  The Brits for example often soak theirs in milk before pouring on copious amounts of sugar and call it breakfast.  A negative value food coupled with two poisons. probably why we lost the Empire.  The Japanese amazed me ,  and vice versa, when I discovered that yes,  cornflakes are sold in small boxes as a snack aimed primarily at the young to teenager market. The idea that one might actually put milk and sugar on them was so totally alien I dined out on it for my first seven and a half years here.

Anyway,  in response to John`s comment in a recent thread: 

>The Tarantelle music is more violinistic than intelectual.    Violinistic versus Intelectual?  Lets have a heated debate!    You can envy the original poster and all the fresh players he will enjoy. Would you like to have your memory wiped and then start afresh ?

I have evolved a cornflakian theory of violinists and music to satisfy all but the most pernickety.  It`s lacking in content,   slightly orange in color and comes with a free 1cm plastic model of Brittney Spears.

The fundamental underlying requirement of being a performer is fire/passion.  It drives not only commitment to practice but the way one feels on stage.  Those world class violinists who do not have this burning connection with music and an audience do not become soloists.

The great soloists of past ,  present and future have three basic qualities set against the backdrop of fire/passion:   technique,    intellect and innate musicality.  Ironically these can be separated more easily in lesser players than the great.  Suppose for example one is at the upper sludge bottom music festival in Chipping Sodbury.  The set piece is Zapateado.  One player is only concerned with technique and produces a flashy but uniinteresting performance.  The next young victim is musically gifted to a much greater extent ,  rarely practices but often plays cutesy pieces for the family on Sunday afternoon.   Zapateado  is played at half speed and rather out of tune with some dynamics thrown in.  The third performer (rare) doesn`t practice scales,  has no innate musicality but knows the origin of the word Zapateado in ancient Greek and can explain to you the hints of spanish modality found in certain notes.  The performance is neither technical or musical and the player might as well have read the program notes from a CD.

In short,  Zipadidooda as opposed to whatever.

When one comes to great violinists the three qualities are much more evenly distributed.  It is only a slight shift in the ratio between them that distinguishes the players from each other although this distinction can be quite marked. An obvious extreme is Heifetz vs. Szigeti.  In the one case technique is prioritized and in te other intellect although in neither is the reverse lacking (nor is innate musicality.   The great players can consciously adjust this ratio to some degree although the core of their nature is fairly fixed.

In terms of their interpretation the above situation fluctuates to a degree due to the nature of the music itself and how the player in question actually views the music.   This classification of music is not really best done only in terms of rather broad periods (baroque,  romantic etc) but also in terms of the intent and nature of the piece itself which is also an interpretive issue.  Did it have a particular religious or moral objective?  Was it written to show off the instrument (a category that cuts across eras) ?  Was it designed as musical dessert or main course?  etc.

As the great players consider these questions adjustments occur to a minute degree in the ratio of application of the three qualities;   technique,   innate musicality,   and intellect.   In some cases there may be such a conflict that the player is unable to play the piece at a certain stage in their life. For example,  Szigeti reached a stage where he no longer had any interest in performing works of a dessert nature that did not make sufficient demands on his intellect.   Heifetz ,  on the other hand may not have pursued works he found over intellectual.   When the relative qualities of the player and music coincide the effect is astonishing.  On such happy ocassion a player becomes associated with that work and a so called `legendary performance` takes place. Szigeti playing the Prokofiev,   Oistrakh/Shostakovitch,  Heifetz/Elgar  and so on.

Sometimes the results can be surprising and remind us that there are always other possibilities.  In the case of the Scherzo Tarantelle I grew up on Heifetz which is of course awesome.  The performance epitomizes the technique oriented approach to the work.  Brilliant. Over the years the kind of sound I like best switched in the direction of Milstein and his version became a favorite alongside the Heifetz.  Then recently listening to Menuhin for the first time in this work ( my own thoughts and prejudice son this master made me seek him out in otehr genres) the technique is utterly extraordinary but the orientation is more to relegating the show off/technical element to second place and treating the work as one which,  despite the incredible speed,  must let the  innate musicality of both player and music shine as though it were the most sublime Mozart.   For me it is the non plus ultra recording of this work and it says something about Wieniawski that should perhaps be said more often.

PS as a hurriedly added and rather sad footnote,  the version that inspired me was recorded by Menuhin in 1932.  The later recording (1947)  seems lacking in everything I so admire in the first.  this issue is covered by the frosties theorum which is too diverse and sophisticated for v.commie.



24 replies | Archive link

Sometimes it really isn`t fair...

July 1, 2010 21:31


poking fun at conductors goes with the turf and is very healthy.  The currentt discussion on conductors coincides very neatly with some very dark thoughts I have been having about conductors over the last week.These originate  from the following events:

I decided to sit back in with my local amateur orchestra which also happens to be one of the top three in Japan according to ther Amateur Orchestra Assocation.  It was lovely to sit at the back of the seconds and enjoy a wonderful progranm consisting of Beethoven 7,  the Nutcracker and Russlan and Ludmilla. It does not  get much better except for the absence of prunes.  What made it all the more enjoybale was the sheer amount of private practice and extra sectionals the players were putting in.  On top of that very good professional coaches were being brought in and doing a marvellous job.

As is usually the case the conductor only came to about four rehearsals. One at the beginning so we knew what his basic ideas were and the final run up of rehearsals.   Well, I know this conductor of old and although he is a -very- nice person and perhaps quite gifted as a musician as a conducter he is wishy washy,  boring and unoriginal. His rehearsals are utterly inefficient (`oh, lets take it right form the beginning one more time,` or  `oh I`m going to sit at the back of the room and you just play together`). 

Come the concert and the atmosphere was really kicking.  Everybody was raring to go and pouring their guts out. None of this was an emotional response to the conductor.  His contribution was virtually non-existent. Indeed, the one place in the concert where too much enthusisam coupled with nerves and an orchestra that can`t really handle the dotted rythms of the first move Beethoven and things almost came unglued. At no time did the conducter kick himself up a gear and intervene to correct things and bring it back under control. We didn`t crash but it was close.  Thankfully after that everything was miraculous.  So much so that aside from the expected encores the audience wouldn`t stop clapping and the conducter received more curtain calls than I can remember.  Now,  irrespective of the fact that he is a nice guy, the truth is he contributed virtually nothing to the prepraration of the concert and realistically did little more in the gig itself than look pofound while waving his stick around in an ineffectual manner.   Everyone but him had worked like nothign on earth to create this event and he got virtually all the kudos. To be frank, it just does not sit well with me.

What then is a good conductor? One defintion I have that certainly din`t apply in this case was that one walks away from a rehearsal feeling that one has really learnt something.  In another sense I would say a great conducter appears to be creating the whole score as he/she goes along.   A lousy conducter is one who appears to be created by the score as it goes along.

No prizes....



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