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

July 24, 2010, 7:35 PM ·

  Greetings, 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 professional 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.





July 25, 2010 at 01:06 AM ·

Your idle comments are very true.

My first violin teacher thought Menuhin was THE violinist to hear.  So I sort of grew up hearing a lot of the good. I didn't hear the not-so-good until many years later, after I'd discovered Perlman, Heifetz and Oistrakh.  I remember buying a cassette tape of a Menuhin performance of a specific concerto I wanted to hear, and it was very disappointing (the sharp problem you mentioned).  I've noticed on the radio stations around here that the jocks aren't very picky about what recordings they choose to play. You might hear a good one. Then again, you might not. It's a crap shoot.

Thanks for the link to the video!

July 25, 2010 at 01:52 AM ·

 The young Menuhin playing the Elgar with the composer on the podium is a treasure.

July 25, 2010 at 02:18 AM ·

What is the final (1956) recording of the Brahms by Szigeti?  I do not find any from that year.   Do we know the conductor and orchestra for this 1956 recording?

July 25, 2010 at 11:58 AM ·

I remember seeing Menuhin about 30 years ago.  I was shocked at his problems, both related to intonation and bowing.  I think, as with many violinists, as he got older, his intonation suffered from hearing issues.   The bowing issues have been debated in various places, with some folks arguing that through his teacher Persinger, he inherited the problems that Ysaye had with bowing technique.  Apparently, Ysaye's techinique sort of self-destructed as he aged, much as Menuhin's did (although some folks have argued that the issue with Ysaye was one of ill-health rather than technique).  Whatever.

All that said, I have some fabulous recordings of his, not only the Elgar just mentioned, but the Mozart violin concertos and some Bartok concerti and sonatas for both violin and viola.  He was truly an awesome violinist at his good times, and an excellent conductor.  He was also a great humanitarian.  We violinists owe him a lot.  May his memory be for a blessing, as we Jews say.

July 25, 2010 at 01:21 PM ·

As  a performer ages and loses some of the physical prowess of youth, the truly greats more than make up for that with the depth their life experience informs what they play.

July 25, 2010 at 04:40 PM ·

The very early Menuhin playing presents us with a mystery. Even if he could copy everything  his teachers showed him, you would never expect the seamless musicality on top of the technical ease of performance.

July 25, 2010 at 06:38 PM ·

Heard Menuhin in 1976 in a "Miracle" recital of his. Beethoven sonatas and the famous Bartok for solo violin. He played at his best, like if it was the prodigy we were hearing. I still have in mind a perfect Bartok sonata and all the crowd standing up at the end with great applauds and loud Bravissimo. He did not have any technical problems that particular night and was in perfect symbiose with his instrument. Ida Hendel was sitting nearby and was obviously deeply moved...

July 25, 2010 at 07:20 PM · I read a big fat biography of him recently. (Sorry, didn't record the title but it's probably a standard.) I was impressed by his achievements. The two that stand out in my mind are a music festival in Switzerland and a music school in England. Buri--which things were you thinking about when you said he couldn't quite get some act together? One sort-of-negative thing about him that didn't impress me is that as a youngster, he never tuned his own violin before concerts! His teacher did! Is that standard? Could that contribute to being out of tune when he gets older?

July 26, 2010 at 12:05 AM ·

The thing that has always puzzled me about Menuhin is that for all his intelligence, erudition, probing intellect, willingness to experiment and rethink matters, and  his musical sensitivity, he seems not to have been able to put his finger, no pun intended, on the issue of his problematic bow arm. What started out as a very expressive portato became a sometimes uncontrollable shake. He knew about son file exercises, he knew about breathing, yoga, he was absorbed in the music and could  spin the most deeply felt phrases, so what prevented him from correcting the problems or playing with greater consistency?  David Nadien , in  a video interview, makes mention of an encounter with Menuhin in which Menuhin openly wondered  in earnest how Nadien played with such beautiful flowing bowing and wanted to know what Nadien was doing that worked so well. Nadien explained to the interviewer that he dared not say anything for fear that it might change something that would not work out or effect the unique artistry of Menuhin. We get the strong impression that Menuhin was a seeker an explorer wanting to know and understand so why wasn't he able to reverse the increasing lack of control in his bow even before age took its toll? Was there something psychological going on?

July 26, 2010 at 01:56 AM ·


Francesca, as far as gettign his act togtehr all the time was cocnerned it is the great tragedy thta sometimes when Menuhin played in the middle to later part of his career he was so obviously in trouble, basically unable to get out his wonderful message thta a one time listener would might well have dismissed im out of hand as a complete has been long before his time was up.

ROnald,  pschological for sure but at this stage it would be mer especulationso frankly I doubt if its worth trying to open the mind of a dead man and really trying to understand things.   One could pick up any angle one liked and based on standard psychological generalizations talk about ze muzzer,  or being regarded (quite literally) as God by audiences who who ha dnever heard anything like that from a young boy (or even adults) and still one might be incompletley the wrong ball park.

Better to just enjoy th music and try to keep the younger generations aware of its existence and worth.




July 26, 2010 at 02:36 AM ·

Very interesting post, I have one recording of Menuhin (the Mendelsohn concerto) and have seen some on clips youtube. To be honest I wasn't impressed, I noticed the problem you are describing, just never bother to mention it to anyone :) Probably what I've seen are the bad side of Menuhin. 

I wonder with the flat/sharp problem, how can he play all sharp/flat on open string? either he tuned his violin flat/sharp, or he just never use open string to be consistently flat/sharp, right? anyway what I notice is that sometimes his relative intonation is not perfect too which probably bother most people (rather than only those with perfect pitch).

July 26, 2010 at 11:06 AM ·

This may seem strange, but as time goes on, I begin to appreciate those less-than-good Menuhin performances more. Maybe it's just that perfection gets boring after a while. Or maybe it's that what Menuhin achieves in spite of his technical inadequacies makes his achievements somehow more "heroic." It's David attacking Goliath.

I am thinking particularly of his recordings of the Paganini 2nd Concerto (with Fistoulari conducting) and his recording of the Nielsen Concerto. The Paganini not only "sings," it "speaks," and he somehow turns it into (within its operatic/virtuoso genre) one of the great violin concertos. And the Nielsen has a fierce edge to it that is riveting.

I saw Menuhin twice, in the late 1950's with the Chicago Symphony. Both times, strangely enough, he played the Bartok Concerto. One of those performances was taped and is available from the CSO, and it is as memorable for his struggles as it is for his enduring vision of the heart of the music.

Anyway, interesting discussion. I'm not so sure that the enigma of Yehudi Menuhin will ever be completely understood.


July 26, 2010 at 01:39 PM ·

Your points are well taken Buri and Sandy. I think it's that I feel very sad that these problems in his playing occurred and wished they could have been prevented or avoided, but to think positively about it, as you suggest, I did feel privileged to have heard Menuhin play the Elgar with the Baltimore Symphony when I was a teenager. There was indeed that undefinable element of genius and deeply felt music-making. One knew one was in the presence of greatness. And, truth be told, to hear even one phrase expressed with ardent passion and total sincerity  from Menuhin is more valuable and memorable than many a violinist's entire concert.

July 27, 2010 at 02:21 AM ·

 Hi- I heard Menuhin many times, on both good and bad days. Firstly, I'd like to talk about his musicianship. Music is the language of the emotions, and he spoke that language better than anyone in the world. I've heard performances by other violinists (Joshua Bell at Taglewood in the Saint-Saens  b minor concerto) that were so gripping that you could hear a pin drop, but those performances were simply times to treasure. On some occasions, Menuhin's " playing "came from another world". For me, at least, hearing him on such an occasion was life changing. I realized that music is a path to the spiritual, an experience which cannot be described in words.  (Rudolf Otto does take a good stab at it in "The Idea of the Holy".) Menuhin clearly believed that music could change the world; I'm not as skeptical about that as I was before.     On the technical front, the actual problem is quite clear. It's obvious that severe tensing up of the right arm mechanism led to the uncontrollable bow tremor. This was revealed to him as soon as he came into contact with yoga. While one can learn to relax with yoga, no matter how relaxed one is, tensing up instantly is quite available to the most relaxed among us. No one taught him that being aware of the tightening while it's still only a thought and stopping it at that point is an essential part of technique. Mistakes happen before they happen, and although the approach that leads to awareness and control may not be obvious, it can be learned. The unfortunate thing for Menuhin is that he never studied with Dounis. While I was studying with David Nadien, we discussed Menuhin, and when I lamented that Menuhin was widely criticized for his bow arm problems, his eyes flared with anger as he said, "He had the STUFF!" He was utterly dismissive of those critics (as well as critics in general).     Charles Johnston

July 27, 2010 at 07:37 AM ·

 Great comments Charles.

>Mistakes happen before they happen, and although the approach that leads to awareness and control may not be obvious, it can be learned.

That`s the one.   Also sums up AT very nicely,



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