Yehudi Menuhin

Edited: April 1, 2020, 6:24 AM · I'm not going to give one of those silly POVs like "he was the greatest ever" or "he is the most over-rated ever".
I'm trying to understand the YM phenomenon.

Some child prodigies burn out. Or they achieve at 10 what others achieve at 21, then they stop and all the others catch up during the next 11 years.

In 1980 Nicholas Daniel won the BBC Young Musician Of the Year prize on the oboe. He still does occasional gigs and session work, and he may be doing very well, but I'd never listen to him in preference to Heinz Holliger. The 2nd prize that year went to a girl who played the Mendelssohn violin concerto. Some felt she should have won. She's a physiotherapist now.

And I would guess that Menuhin was such a prodigy who came along in a golden age of violin when there was a boom in the record industry and a boom in radio. His violin playing went off the boil, but his popularity didn't, because he maintained a high profile - he founded a school and he became a television personality. When I say went off the boil, well, I've heard things by him that have underwhelmed me. He can sometimes play slowly and ponderously. I've read about TV guest appearances that have embarrassed everyone. I have his autobiog which I am about to read. I gather something went wrong with his right arm?

Similarly people imagine Stephane Grappelli was the best jazz violinist ever, but Reinhardt preferred Michel Warlop, who died of TB in 1947; and Grappelli rode the wave of post-war television popularity. I saw Grappelli with Menuhin on TV in the 70s. God, it was awful. Otoh, there are always people in the world of music who don't retire until they are well over the hill and rely on nothing but the love of their fans.

I've made up much of the above to give me a simple picture I can grasp and for you to get your teeth into.
What do you agree with, and what do you disagree with?

Replies (49)

Edited: April 1, 2020, 10:10 AM · There are some wonderful recordings of the mature Menuhin: tender, expressive Mozart concertos, an unequalled rhapsodic fervour in concertos by Bruch (Dminor), Bartok (including by far the best version of the viola concerto), and Bloch; Chausson's Poème, Beethoven Kreutzer and Spring sonatas with Kentner, Bartok's sonatas with his son Jeremy, Elgar's sonata with Hephzibar, and the 1976 discs of Bach's sonatas & partitas, heart-rending and majestic.

And despite many good alternatives, no one, but no one, played Enescu's third sonata with just the "right" tone and articulation (apart from Enescu himself).

We have to admit that according to the sound engineers, there was much splicing of retakes (sometimes detectable). And some later discs are frankly embarrassing.

Edit: BTW I heard Grappelli live in '76, and his playing was still impeccable..

Edited: April 1, 2020, 5:22 AM · Gnashers to the ready.

I think my teacher at school had it right about Menuhin - he deserves his celebrity mainly for being a great man rather than a great violinist. Having said that he was capable of fine performances even into the late 1970's when I heard him in Beethoven. Having enthralled us in the concerto, he then messed up the end of one of the romances...

And I also made a point of hearing Grappelli live at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1973, sprawled comfortably on the grass a few metres from the stage. He was unique but should never have agreed to play with Menuhin.

But I can't stand Holliger's tone - give me Nick Daniel any day!

Edited: April 1, 2020, 6:40 AM · I don't prefer Warlop to Grappelli. Warlop was more of a virtuoso, Grappelli more lyrical. If Django's preference was for Warlop, it was a personal thing.
Edited: April 7, 2020, 3:25 PM · We mustn't forget that benchmark recording of the Elgar VC Menuhin made in the 1930s in his teens with Elgar himself conducting. The post-WWII LP of it is one of my prized recordings.

The story goes that the young Menuhin visited Elgar's house to run through the concerto with him. After a couple of pages playing Elgar stopped and said "that'll be fine!", or words to that effect, and went off to play a round of golf! Elgar, himself a violinist, knew what he wanted and saw it immediately in Menuhin's playing.

Edited: April 1, 2020, 10:31 AM · I prefer Lockwood to Grappelli. Partly because I don't prefer the "gypsy jazz" sound, and partly because I think Grappelli relied too heavily on an arsenal of flashy, crowd-pleasing licks rather than the kind of melodic improvisation that I associate with idiomatic jazz. Justin Anick is a better jazz violinist than Grappelli ever was. I mean that sincerely. Grappelli was the first "great" one with international fame and the ability to bring huge names on stage with him, that's why he's lionized. With Django he created an original sound -- and that's a big achievement. My favorite Grappelli recording is the one with Oscar Peterson -- another master of flashy licks with a very long career. I saw Oscar in the 80s -- he was topping the billboard charts in the 50s. A lot of the popularity had to do with "accessibility" which is why Peterson, Errol Garner, and Dave Brubeck became household names. None of them rank among my favorite players though. Certainly not in terms of originality. Note that Lockwood cut at least two albums in tribute to Grappelli. And they're very good albums.
Edited: April 1, 2020, 10:40 AM · The standard analysis is that his problems were psychological. Doubtless there were family issues, as well as the trauma of the war, but the big factor seems to have been the fact that he learned too easily, and then froze when he realized that it would be a good idea to think it all through. I knew a musician who was also a psychologist and he saw Menuhin completely scramble a performance of Wieniawski's Scherzo-Tarantella. The sort of thing that a stage-fright-ridden teenager might have messed up on in his lesson.

There were other things that were less to be admired. Some of the playing just became a little square and stodgy, as he worked his way through different styles. He could get pretty eccentric with some of that. I read a masterclass transcript where he said that he started a particular measure of the Bach Ciaccona down-bow, because it was exactly in the middle of the piece. As a way of tipping his hat. ?!?

On the other hand, when he was on form, he was unbeatable. There is a video of him playing Brahms with Celibidache and the BPO right after the war-- wow! And there were certainly other moments interspersed right up to the end. Nevertheless, he was less than reliable.

Fun and irrelevant fact: I grew up in a New York suburb that had quite a few wealthy Jewish families. There was a synagogue right down the street where I worked on learning to ride a bike. They would put on benefit concerts, and the two that my parents and I managed to get into were by David Oistrakh and The Menuhins (Yehudi and Hepzibah, I think). Sadly, I was too young to have a memory of either of those things as musical events, but it was nice to feel part of a special occasion.

Edited: April 1, 2020, 11:13 AM · Another note about the Elgar-- I know the composer was happy with Menhuin's work. There are a few bits of gossip online about why Kreisler was not chosen for the job. He had premiered the piece, after all. Perhaps fees, or his age (gotta promote the new man). But another rumor was that he had told Elgar that it needed cuts and the composer wasn't pleased.

Personally, I find the concerto pretty tough sledding to listen to. Walking through mud in snow shoes if you're not careful. Menuhin doesn't completely avoid that problem. My own preference is Heifetz, and apparently HE got his inspiration/instruction from the recording by Albert Sammons!

April 1, 2020, 12:01 PM · In the 70s,(probably '75 or '76) I was a member of the Ulster Orchestra. We had a "celebrity fund", and for the inaugural concert, Sir Yehudi ( as he then was) played the Beethoven with us. It was magical, and his sister said there was something special about the Belfast audience.
At the time, it was a bit rough here (to put it mildly) and I believe he came here just for the music.
April 1, 2020, 12:05 PM · I agree I don’t enjoy Menuhin’s recordings and I do not like his viola playing in any way, particularly the bartok concerto
Edited: April 1, 2020, 12:21 PM · I'm really skeptical of any Menuhin recording, even though I have heard good ones, and despite my teacher tirelessly advocating for his recordings (She balks whenever I suggest Kogan - De gustibus). I just don't tend to like his sound for the most part.

My understanding is that he was so talented and his parents so ambitious, that went off to Enescu and learned a lot about interpretation, but never really fully developed his right arm, and that some more time with his teacher instead of becoming this touring child prodigy would have allowed him to do the work needed.

As a man, and maybe this is unfair, I wish he had been more mindful of his responsibility towards the students of the school he founded, which seemed to become a magnet for pedophiles - These things don't happen in a vacuum, and I bet his intentions were great, but having a naive belief in the power of music to conquer all doesn't mean you don't build an institution with certain safeguards for all students. I don't want to slag Menuhin, because he really did a lot of good as an ambassador for music - I have a contrarian skepticism of all public do-gooder types.

I like Grappelli, even if after listening to a lot, you pick out a lot that is formulaic. I respect anyone that develops a really distinctive voice, even if his improvisation isn't on the level of a Monk, Evans, Davis or Coltrane. No one else sounds like him, he sounds good, and I think his contribution to the development of the "gypsy jazz" idiom is pretty key, even if that idiom is somewhat limited (and I don't mean that pejoratively) in its expression. Referencing what Paul was talking about, this performance of Nuages with Oscar Peterson (who I respect more than love) is pretty awesome:

Edited: April 1, 2020, 1:47 PM · After Enescu, he went to Adolph Busch. A fantastic violinist, but maybe not quite the teacher he needed. Carl Flesch in his memoirs lamented that he'd not had a chance to crack the case.

He also played for Ysaye, and failed to play a scale and arpeggio well after the usual Mozart or Beethoven. That connection could have worked wonders, but Menuhin wasn't ready to do the work to get accepted by the great man.

Speaking of his sound, though, there is something quite haunting about it, at least when it wasn't at its worst. It strikes me as having a kinship with Judy Garland's voice, which had huge depths of maturity and suffering even while coming from a young girl.

April 1, 2020, 2:08 PM · First recording of his I heard (it was a video to be precise) was his 1982 performance in Leipzig of the Brahms concerto. I think he played it with a lot of feeling and intensity. Orchestra was pretty good too (violin section was really good!).
April 1, 2020, 2:09 PM ·

Interesting range of comments.

April 1, 2020, 2:40 PM · Viola? I don't like his Walton concerto, his Frank Martin ballade, nor his Brahms viola sonatas, and I don't try to sound like him, but I find his playing completely apt in the Bartok concerto.
April 1, 2020, 2:44 PM · I don't believe so. It is available on DVD (and VHS before that). There is a video on YouTube but it's of poor quality (

April 1, 2020, 3:54 PM · Menuhin showed his human side when he wrote and published "Unfinished Journey." He was a prodigy and he rose, by his own admission, too fast by his parents, Persinger, et al. In the later chapters of his book he points out that there was a period where he had to stop performing and go back to rebuild skills that he had glossed over during the rapid rise.

Menuhin's fame was a combination of talent and marketing. That he survived the life of the performing professional musician was an accomplishment in itself.

Saul Lipshutz who now repairs sailboats under the adopted family name of Chandler was another prodigy but one that burned out. That is all too common. Some say that Saul could have been another great but he didn't want to live the life.

While the violin is my personal passion, I would never want to do, with the violin and music, what I did with Supply Chain Management. All that road time, speaking, writing, consulting,... I know some professionals who love what they do but I also see the price they have to pay.

Lastly, at his worst Menuhin was way better than I will ever be on the violin.

April 1, 2020, 4:01 PM · His very style doesn't fit very well with the Sarasate. But he did a Tzigane in the 30s that is a better match, and that is quite stunning.
April 1, 2020, 4:03 PM ·

Some Brahms with a great conductor.

April 1, 2020, 4:09 PM · One possibility is that it has become stylish to dump on Menuhin. Seriously.
April 1, 2020, 7:09 PM · Another tidbit, this from The Guardian's obituary of Andre Previn:

Among his most irreverent anecdotes – there were many – was one about a performance of the Beethoven Triple Concerto in which he was the classical-minded piano soloist, Mstislav Rostropovich was the arch-romantic cellist and Yehudi Menuhin was the technically distressed violinist. As Previn recounted to BBC Music Magazine, the conductor, Leonard Bernstein, was appalled at how badly it all came out, while Menuhin claimed to have experienced something sublime.


Edited: April 1, 2020, 8:01 PM · @ Gordon. As a classicaly trained violinist, Warlop, deeply, almost despairing, envied the natural ease of Grappelli's playing. He wanted more than anything to devote himself to jazz, but never got over the stiffness of his training. If Django said he prefered him, it was most likely because of Django's and Stephan's rivalry and the homophobic attitude of
the Gypsys, and other musicians towards Grappelli.
April 1, 2020, 9:38 PM · Menuhin had a long career, but his greatest success as a player came in his youth. As he got older, he was plagued by the shadow of his earlier success. He became quite nervous before performance and spent years looking for remedies, such as massages before every performance, experiments with shoulder rests, playing shirtless, yoga, and practicing in multiple positions. His illustrious early career haunted him for the rest of his life, but he did accomplish much as an ambassador of the violin.
Edited: April 2, 2020, 12:17 AM · @Jeff. Excellent points, although maybe a little circular, since Grappelli's sexuality is still a matter for some speculation.

@Paul. And some people brush aside anything they don't like by accusing it of being trendy. As I tried to say, I didn't want to dump on him, just see both sides of the balance sheet, because it was evident there was more than one, and the Wiki article on him, although I've only skimmed it, seemed like a simplistic hagiography. I've not yet seen any negativity about Heifetz or Oistrakh, which is not to say it's not out there, so it's not the case that we automatically dump on all the greats.

Edited: April 2, 2020, 12:28 AM · To your rescue Gordon, I may have some doubts about Menuhin's sound and consistency, but there is stuff of his that I quite like. I can't stand listening to Heifetz in just about anything - Once in a while he surprises me, but I don't detect a beating heart in his playing (regardless of him not being alive). I realize mine is not the most common opinion. His Sibelius is just awful!
Edited: April 2, 2020, 12:40 AM · Maybe, instead of just Menuhin, the "golden age of violin" needs an overhaul of its reputation - with a view to balance?
April 2, 2020, 12:38 AM · @ Gordon, You are mistaken. I know for a fact
Grappelli was Gay. No big secret.
Edited: April 2, 2020, 1:59 AM · "In some more lyrical and tender pieces [Heifetz] does go a little too fast for my liking."
I compared the start of Beethoven's Spring sonata. I wasn't sure if Heifetz was too fast or Menuhin too slow, lol! I must listen to the whole thing, actively, some time.
Edited: April 2, 2020, 7:19 AM · There was a very nice thread on Menuhin some 14 years ago, just for your reference:

What is it about Yehudi Menuhin?

April 2, 2020, 7:26 AM · @jean. Yeah I saw that and skimmed it, but it seemed too gushing.
April 2, 2020, 7:26 AM · @jean. Yeah I saw that and skimmed it, but it seemed too gushing.
Edited: April 2, 2020, 7:30 AM · On YouTube search for "the young yehudi menuhin encore", there are numbers 1 through 5 of them. These fragments, for me, make very clear that young Yehudi was not just your ordinary prodigy. He *is* the music. Perlman says somewhere about this: "prodigy? forget Mozart".
April 2, 2020, 7:31 AM · Menuhin's many attempts to recover his childhood ease helped him to analyse the motions of playing to a remarkable degree.

His "Six Lessons with Yehudi Menuhin" (translated into French with the pretentious title "L'Art de jouer du violon"..) are not easy reading, but are a mine of practical wisdom, reaching to the roots of every gesture.

Working through the chapters on bowing, I began to sound like him! Of course we may not want to, but that is not my point: how many teachers can transmit their own sound through written instructions only?

Edited: April 2, 2020, 8:01 AM · Skimming through the 2006 thread I'm interested and saddened by how the prevalent perceptions and opinions have changed. My take on that is we're far more technique-obsessed these days and the time when great and not-so-great musicians were appreciated as individuals with unique qualities as well as flaws is long gone (excepting Jean and Adrian and a few others)
April 2, 2020, 11:08 AM · I found his book "6 Lessons..." to be odd, maybe dangerous. In his autobiography and in a filmed interview he admitted that his phase of self-analyzing the mechanics of his playing was not helpful. His centipede story went something like this; Someone asked the centipede in what order did he place his feet while walking. The answer was " I don't know, I never thought about it." And from that moment he could not walk at all. The moral of the story is that if you are that talented, that skilled at such an early age, Do Not analyze your playing. You will get into a mental feedback loop, like a dog chasing his tail. As mentioned already, he has some the definitive recordings, like the Elgar concerto and the Enesco Sonata #3. He branched out into other genres, having the courage to play next to jazz master Grappelli. I only did one concert with him. I thought his playing was strangely disconnected from self, but his warm-up back-stage was amazing, doing high velocity scales in parallel thirds.
April 2, 2020, 12:10 PM · Gordon, it's interesting to compare Sandy's thread to yours. Sandy concluded his original post with, "If you feel the same way, what is it about this artist that you believe made him so compelling?" It's not surprising, then, that many of the ensuing comments painted Menuhin in a positive light. Your original post, in my opinion, showed less intrinsic bias.
April 2, 2020, 3:21 PM · @Gordon. Yeah I saw and skimmed this thread of yours, but it seemed too biting.

I read your first paragraph of your post and then find the rest of it totally contradicts the benign and seemingly fair opening. You are not trying to understand anything at all. Your mind is totally made up.

I agree with Paul Deck. It is very fashionable to dump on Menuhin. Seriously.

April 2, 2020, 3:54 PM · People can like who they like or dislike who they dislike without it having to be some kind of fashion - I get that tastes change over time, but I'm not inferring that from the "fashionable" statement. It's kind of condescending to assume that people can't truly have their own opinions on things.

14 years ago, there were a lot more people alive that had seen Menuhin in concert, and it was a lot closer to when he was still living.

Edited: April 2, 2020, 5:01 PM · The one time I saw Menuhin play live was sometime in the mid 50's when he performed Bartok 2 to a packed house of over 2000 in Bristol's Colston Hall. I, and a couple of dozen others from Bristol Youth Orchestra were in the audience near the back on the ground floor, and what impressed us was his projection, as it is called now, and this meant something to us kids because our orchestra had recently gave a concert in that splendid venue. We could clearly hear every note he played, no matter what the orchestra was doing. I think he must have been nearing 40 then and still at the height of his powers.

I never did get around to seeing a video of Grappelli and Menuhin, but I should imagine that Grappelli treated him with respect and made allowances where due. Unlike a much later occasion some years ago when a well-known Irish fiddler got to play along with Grappelli's band in a gig, under the impression he could easily cope in the widely different jazz environment. Bad mistake! Grappelli and the band weren't impressed, realised that a square peg in a round hole needed to be shown a thing or two and so took Square Peg to the cleaners and hung him out to dry. There is, or was, a YT video of the gig, but I cannot for the life of me recollect names ;)

April 2, 2020, 8:25 PM · I cannot for the life of me recollect names...…

Frankie Gavin on Sweet Georgia Brown.?

I have seen Steph not do so well on occasion..

April 3, 2020, 3:31 AM · As a piano teacher, my day job, it was not unusual for my students to get perfect marks in the odd piece even at the highest grade. Now that was my interpretation not theirs. Anybody know who taught Menuhin the Elgar? Save me googling it? Thanks.
Edited: April 3, 2020, 3:59 AM · I don't think anyone needed to teach Menuhin the Elgar concerto; it's all there on the page. I daresay Enescu gave him a few suggestions but I doubt he studied the piece himself. When the 16-year-old Menuhin first met Elgar he had been learning it for just 2 months; Elgar is supposed to have said it was "just fine". Menuhin may have had access to Albert Sammons's recording from 3 years earlier but it's very different in style.
April 3, 2020, 4:54 AM · Did he have a teacher at age 16?
April 3, 2020, 6:10 AM · George Enescu
April 3, 2020, 7:53 AM · As much as folks say about Menuhin's concern for others, all I can say is that if he had been born in, say, 1960, by now he'd probably have a really swell blog.
April 7, 2020, 1:12 PM · Trevor, the story I heard on BBC radio was that Elgar went off to the races, not that he went to play golf.
April 7, 2020, 3:30 PM · John, thank you for the correction. Off to the races must indeed be the most likely because Elgar was an avid fan of the sport and the Cheltenham race course was not too far from his home in Worcestershire.
April 10, 2020, 6:42 PM · Just add: He was a better conductor than the orchestral players he conducted would admit.

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