Saturday, December 24, 2016

The “Vanity Projects” of Yehudi Menuhin on DVD

It took over two months for me to go through the box of eleven DVDs that serve as a “video appendix” to Warner Classics’ The Menuhin Century collection. This was due, in part, to the fact that, because my highest priority is on listening, most of my time is spent either at concerts or with recordings. About halfway through the effort, I realized that, if I was going to see the light at the end of the tunnel at all, it would be best to focus only on the performances and dispense with the “documentary” content (scare quotes intended to suggest that what I did see of that content was not particularly compelling).

Overall, this is a rather unbalanced collection of performances. The basic organization is as follows:
  1. Two DVDs consisting almost entirely of short (“encore” style) performances made by Paul Gordon and Bernd Bauer filming at the Charlie Chaplin Studios in 1947
  2. One DVD of films and telecasts from Paris, about half of which involve Menuhin playing with his sister Hephzibah
  3. Four DVDs of video documents of concerts given by Menuhin in the Soviet Union in 1987 and 1989, directed by Bruno Monsaingeon
  4. One additional Monsaingeon DVD divided between Menuhin playing The Four Seasons with the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Opus 77 violin concerto of Johannes Brahms (along with two encores of Johann Sebastian Bach) with Kurt Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
The distribution across these categories suggests something that probably occurred to many as soon as they opened the box enclosing all of The Menuhin Century in its entirety: This vast effort was very much a “vanity project” by Monsaingeon based on the desire to create a hagiographic account of Menuhin’s life based on 70 years of audio and video recordings. This may go down well with those harboring enthusiastically passionate memories of Menuhin in concert, on television, or on recordings; but, as accounts of the audio portion of this collection have suggested, those primarily seeking stimulating listening experiences are likely to find themselves disappointed.

Most interesting are probably the films made at the Chaplin Studios. In a filmed conversation with Humphrey Burton, Menuhin explained that he was approached by Gordon to make a series of films that would provide a concert experience in a movie hall. In many respects these films are the venerable ancestors of the HD videos that are now being captured in concert halls and opera houses around the world, many of which are projected in real-time to audiences seated in movie theaters. Gordon’s pioneering efforts are thus interesting simply for his having achieved them, even if many of them come off as awkward or even flawed.

Much of the content overlaps with those “Virtuoso” recordings that, as Menuhin himself explained, were based on listening to recordings of Jascha Heifetz. Indeed, it is possible that Gordon approached Heifetz first and without success. (On the basis of what we know about Heifetz’ personality, his reaction would not be surprising.) What is most important is that Gordon managed to pull off the project, regardless of who his soloist was.

Regardless, also, of the quality of Gordon’s techniques as a director, these short films provide a significant perspective on Menuhin as a performer relatively early in his career. That perspective also takes in other performers whose careers would rise during the second half of the twentieth century. My own interest was particularly piqued by opportunities to see Antal Dorati in action, both accompanying Menuhin at the piano and conducting the Symphony Orchestra of Hollywood (which may or may not have been a pickup group assembled for Gordon’s project).

If, from a technical point of view, the results are somewhat crude by current standards, they are still far more satisfying than those produced by Monsaingeon. This is were that motive of hagiography rears its ugly head. Through a series of performances of both concertos and chamber music, Monsaingeon’s capture and editing techniques linger over images of Menuhin as if they were sacred icons. In the concerto recordings, when the camera is not locked on Menuhin, it is locked on members of the orchestra staring at him in rapt admiration. Shots of what the conductor is doing are minimal and are sometime muddled by ill-conceived overlay techniques. The result is that anyone familiar with the video work of Jordan Whitelaw or, more recently, Barbara Willis Sweete will find it difficult to watch any of Monsaingeon’s videos without squirming.

Those who make the entire journey through The Menuhin Century are thus likely to come away feeling that the journey had more to do with the cult of personality than with the underling arts and crafts of making music.

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