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.
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