Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Warner Classics celebrates the “Menuhin Century” (at great length)

This past April 22 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Yehudi Menuhin. Calling him a violinist would sell him short, not only because his talents extended to the viola and conducting but also because they were not confined solely to the performance of and education about music. Menuhin saw music as a unifying force and had begun to develop a reputation as a world citizen long before the United Nations began to take shape. Indeed, were one to criticize Menuhin, the strongest argument against him may be that he spread himself across so many intellectual domains that his attention to music, while impressive, rarely left one with a sense of enduring distinguishing features. Thus, in my earliest days of record collecting, I always recognized Menuhin as a “name;” but his presence in my collection was spare enough to be counted on one hand. On the other hand I greatly appreciated the gift of his memoir, Unfinished Journey; and it continues to enjoy a preferred place on my bookshelf.

As a result, when Warner Classics chose to celebrate the Menuhin centennial with the release of The Menuhin Century, I have to confess that I was more than a little ambivalent. Warner had, of course, taken over the EMI library, the recording company with which Menuhin had a 70-year relationship that led to around 300 albums. The Menuhin Century is not a complete account of that relationship. Nevertheless, it is still massive, consisting of 80 CD and 11 DVDs, as well as a coffee-table-sized book, Passion Menuhin, written by Bruno Monsaingeon, both former pupil and friend. The book itself accounts for much of the weight of the package, a hard-bound tome in which the text is presented in English, French, and German.

The musical content, in turn, is divided into six separate boxes:
  1. Unpublished Recordings and Rarities (22 CDs)
  2. The Historic Recordings (18 CDs)
  3. Live Performances and Festival Recordings (7 CDs)
  4. The Complete Recordings with Hephzibah Menuhin (20 CDs)
  5. The Virtuoso & his Landmark Recordings (13 CDs)
  6. Menuhin on Film 1947–1997 (11 DVDs)
(Note that most of the documentaries in that last box were directed by Monsaingeon.) This all makes for a package that is more than a little unwieldy, not only in the physical sense but also in the mental. If you want to listen to Menuhin playing a specific composition or even just music of a favorite composer, where to you look? The answer is that there is an index of sorts at the back of the book that accounts for all the the music that Menuhin recorded for HMV/EMI and provides Box and CD identification for those recordings included in The Menuhin Century. However, rather than organizing this index alphabetically by composer, the index is first divided into sections as follows:
  • Concertos
  • Works for Violin and Orchestra (other than concertos)
  • Sonatas
  • Chamber Music: Duos
  • Chamber Music: Trios
  • Chamber Music: Quartets: String Quartets
  • Chamber Music: Quartets with Piano or Other Instruments
  • Chamber Music: Quintets: String Quintets
  • Chamber Music: Quintets with Piano or Other Instruments
  • Chamber Music: Sextets
  • Chamber Music: Septets
  • Chamber Music: Octets
  • Virtuoso Pieces
  • Vocal Music
This makes for 640 entries which do not include any of the jazz recordings (Stéphane Grappelli, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, and John Dankworth) or the “ragas” performed (after a fashion, hence the scare quotes) with Ravi Shankar. Furthermore, there are pieces like Max Bruch’s Scottish fantasy that show up under Concertos, rather than in the following section. The production team at Warner Classics could have learned a thing of two from the packaging of the large RCA archival collections; but, in this case, the seeker of anything specific should beware!

As far as the content itself is concerned, my plan is to discuss this package on a box-by-box basis, primarily because dealing with the categories in the index would prove too unwieldy. Furthermore, there is a certain logic to the ordering of the boxes, particularly since the first box deals with content that was previously available only with difficulty or not at all. The earliest recordings date from September of 1929, when Menuhin was thirteen years old. (1929 was also the year in which Menuhin performed with conductor Bruno Walter in Berlin, playing concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johannes Brahms. Note that the index says nothing about other performers, so there is no easy way to see if any recordings with Walter are included in this package!) The latest recordings were made in the spring of 1983 and present Menuhin performing concertos by Jean-Marie Leclair and Giuseppe Tartini with the Polish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk.

Sadly, there is nothing in this collection the really leaps out and seizes the attention of the listener. There are a few selections that are seldom encountered, the most interesting of which is Franz Schubert’s D. 803 octet, which offers an impressive partnership with violinist Robert Masters, cellists Ernst Wallfish and Maurice Gendron, bassist Eugene Cruft, clarinetist Gervase de Peyer, bassoonist Archie Camden, and hornist Barry Tuckwell. There are also two notable collaborations with George Malcolm on harpsichord and Robert Donington on gamba, the six accompanied Bach sonatas (BWV 1014–1019) and the twelve Opus 5 sonatas by Arcangelo Corelli (the last of which is his set of “Folia” variations). These are likely to jar the ear that has become accustomed to historically-informed performances of the works of these composers. (The note stating that Donington prepared the realization of the figured bass for the Corelli sonatas may also raise an eyebrow or two.) To be fair, however, Menuhin’s training was grounded in nineteenth-century practices; and that training comes across in the most disadvantageous light where the pre-Classical composers are involved.

Ironically, my fondest memory of Menuhin was as a conductor, rather than a soloist. I was at an open rehearsal at Carnegie Hall, where he was conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The selection was Edward Elgar’s Opus 61 violin concerto with a rather young Chinese boy as soloist. The boy handled himself very well, meaning that Menuhin could focus primarily on overall balance. He even turned around and asked those in the audience if they were happy with the balance! Elgar wrote this concerto for Fritz Kreisler; but the first recording was made in 1932 with Menuhin as soloist (and Elgar conducting). Thus, to some extent, there at Carnegie Hall Menuhin was more concerned with filling Elgar’s shoes than with coaching a young violinist, who seemed to have quite a few solid ideas of his own!

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