Celebrating a Monumental Musician and Man: Yehudi Menuhin

“Music creates order out of chaos: for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous.” ~ Yehudi Menuhin

When asked to think of a violinist, probably one of the first names that would come to mind is Yehudi Menuhin. I’m going to sound-off a bit (in a good way), as today marks the centenary of his birth, (22nd April 1916).

Yehudi Menuhin violin quote

Perhaps being British I was exposed to his music more than say, the likes of his contemporaries, Jascha Heifetz or David Oistrakh, but he’s undoubtedly one of the giants of the 20th century and revered by many current soloists. Not just for his supreme talent on the violin, or indeed his teaching and music school, or his conducting, but for also for his humanitarian work and contributions to the world of classical music as a whole.

A child prodigy, he first studied under Louis Persinger and later Romanian violinist and composer, George Enescu.

You could say he was truly a citizen of the world, born in the USA to Russian Jewish parent’s he became a Swiss citizen in 1970 and a British citizen in 1985. He performed all over the world during his illustrious career.

Yehud Menuhin on music

His recording contract with EMI was the longest in the history of the music industry, lasting almost 70 years from his first recording aged thirteen in 1929, to his final recording aged eighty three in 1999. He recorded over 300 works both as a violinist and conductor.

His legacy lives on in the form of his music school in Surrey (where Adelia Myslov, the violinist who recorded the soundtrack for my novel, The Virtuoso, attended). Adelia spoke of performing with him and I could see they were very special memories for her.

Yehudi Menuhin_1976

So many of his You Tube clips are from those halcyon days of black and white; truly vintage performances that I love. For me, Menuhin was the embodiment of virtuosity, his style was romantic without being sentimental, his musicality and phrasing was exquisite. I’ll share some of my favourite performances of his throughout this post.

“In playing Beethoven the violinist should be a medium. There is little that is personal or that can be reduced to ingratiating sounds, pleasing slides and so on. Everything is dictated by the significance, the weight, structure and direction of the notes and passages themselves.” ~ Yehudi menuhin

Rather than populate this post with tons of text, I’d rather give you his voice and music…

A Violonist in Hollywood – Yehudi Menuhin in coversation with Humprey Burton:

The focus of the film is on previously unreleased footage from the legendary Hollywood music film, Concert Magic from the year 1947. In interviews and conversations with his biographer Humphrey Burton, Yehudi Menuhin recalls the origin of the film, the war and post-war era in America and Germany. Special attention is paid to his commitment to the victims of World War II. These include great artists forced into American exile such as fellow musician Béla Bartók.

During the Second World War Yehudi Menuhin helped to raise the spirits of war victims and refugee children with numerous concerts. He supported artists in American exile, performed for an audience of freed prisoners of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, and in war ravaged Berlin he played demonstratively under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Looking back at the mid-1940’s it is clear to see with what passion Menuhin linked his goals of musical excellence with a dedication to social causes. He used music to plead for justice and reconciliation often against strong resistance.

“Each human being has the eternal duty of transforming what is hard and brutal into a subtle and tender offering, what is crude into refinement, what is ugly into beauty, ignorance into knowledge, confrontation into collaboration, thereby rediscovering the child’s dream of a creative reality incessantly renewed by death, the servant of life, and by life the servant of love.” ~ Yehudi Menuhin

Yehudi Menuhin School

The Menuhin School was set up in 1963 for musically gifted children and is based in beautiful grounds at Stoke d’Abernon near Cobham in Surrey. I attended a classical concert there last year when Adelia was performing with Craig White; many of the school’s alumni are invited to return. It’s the spiritual home of violin tuition, with Lord Menuhin’s grave located in the grounds near the performance hall.

Menuhin grave

Violinist David Hope was lucky enough to be taught and mentored by Yehudi Menuhin, and talks about his journey with the late maestro and also his latest album, My Tribute to Yehudi Menuhin:

Current violinists fortunate to have been taught by Lord Menuhin include Nigel Kennedy, Nicola Benedetti, Paul Coletti and Peter Tanfield.

The Menuhin Competition

Set up in 1983, this is the world’s foremost violin completion for young musicians under 22. The Menuhin Competition is held every two years in different locations around the world. Past winners include Julia Fischer, Ray Chen, Lara St. John, Tasmin Little and Ilya Gringolts. The 2016 final was won earlier this month by Chinese violinist Ziyu He.

“I would hate to think I am not an amateur. An amateur is one who loves what he is doing. Very often, I’m afraid, the professional hates what he is doing. So, I’d rather be an amateur.” ~ Yehudi Menuhin

Instruments

As you would expect from a musician of his calibre Yehudi Menuhin played on several famous violins, the most famous of which was the Lord Wilton Guarnerius of 1742.  Among his other violins were the Giovanni Bussetto 1680, the Giovanni Grancino 1695, the Guarneri filius Andrea 1703, the Soil Stradivarius, the Prince Khevenhüller 1733 Stradivarius, and the Guarneri del Gesù 1739.

David Fulton - current owner of the 1742 Lord Wilton ex Yehudi Menuhin Guarnerius

David Fulton – current owner of the 1742 Lord Wilton ex Yehudi Menuhin Guarnerius

I couldn’t find a clip where I could be sure Menuhin was performing on his Lord Wilton, but I have found one of James Ehnes playing Tchaikovsky’s Melody on it in 2012.  He made a series of recordings on famous Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu violins. It seems to possess a very rich, deep and powerful tone.

Performance clips

The Menuhin Century: (Ave Maria, Flight of the Bumblebee):

I think I’m going to have to purchase this!

Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Colin Davis in 1962:

Yehudi Menuhin, aged 22 performing the Mendelssohn violin concerto in E minor, Op. 64 with his teacher, George Enescu conducting:

I absolutely adore his Bach Chaconne solo!

An iconic recording with David Oistrakh of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor:

The second movement of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No.1in D Major:

A fabulous vintage video of Menuhin in rehearsal and performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, KV 216:

A vintage recording of Menuhin performing Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto with Elgar conducting the LSO:

Menuhin plays the dramatic third movement of the Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61 with the LSO:

Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade Mélancolique with the RPO:

Teaching

 Violin Tutorial – Left Hand First Exercises:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvV4A6lz-0w 

Left Hand Playing:

Keeping it in the family 

Performing with his sister Yaltah (on the piano), in a feisty rendition of Sarasate’s Habanera:

Accompanied by his son Jeremy Menuhin playing Beethoven’s ‘Spring sonata’ in F Major:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQUzCeIcFnw 

Menuhin performs Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ Trio in 1974 with Rostropovich and Kempff:

Collaborations

Indian Classical Music with Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha and Yehudi Menuhin:

Yehudi Menuhin & Ravi Shankar – Tenderness:

In his jazz mood with Stephane Grappelli! Autumn Leaves:

Jacob Gade’s tango – Jalousie:

I haven’t really touched on the technical difficulties he faced in the latter part of his career, because despite his virtuosic decline he was always an outstanding musician, conductor and human being.

Poster at the performance hall of Yehudi Menuhin School

Poster at the performance hall of Yehudi Menuhin School

“Actually, I was gazing in my usual state of being half absent in my own world and half in the present. I have usually been able to ‘retire’ in this way. I was also thinking that my life was tied up with the instrument and would I do it justice?” ~ Yehudi Menuhin

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 17th Century: Vivaldi (Part 2)

Having covered the more factual parts of Vivaldi’s life and music in part 1, you can sit back, relax and enjoy the maestro’s music…

Antonio Vivaldi portrait

‘L’estro Armonico’ (Harmonic Inspiration) Opus 3

This is a set of twelve concertos for one, two and four violins composed by Vivaldi in 1711.

“Perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the eighteenth century.” ~ Michael Talbot

It’s impossible to highlight so few works out of such an incredible oeuvre but here, in no particular order is a selection of some of my favourites from this opus for your listening pleasure!

Violin Concerto in G major, Op. 3 No.  6, (RV 310) performed by Elizabeth Wallfisch and Tafelmusik:

The amazing harpsichord version transcribed by Bach (BWV 978) played by Chiara Massini:

Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 3 No. 6, RV 356 by Elizabeth Wallfisch:

Concerto for two violins, strings & B.C in A minor, RV522 Op. 3 No. 8 by Tafelmusik:

Concerto for four violins in B minor, Op. 3 No. 10, RV 580 by Il Giardino Armonico:

The astonishing performance of Bach’s transcription for 4 keyboards (BWV 1065), Argerich, Kissin, Pletnev, Levine and a host of top notch violinists! I challenge you to listen to this and not feel happy afterwards!

Concerto for 2 Violins, Cello, Strings and B.C. in D minor Op. 3 No. 11, RV 565 by Tafelmusik:

Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention) Opus 8

Written between 1723 and 1725 and published in 1725, Vivaldi’s Opus 8 consists of twelve violin concertos which he labelled ‘Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione’, of which the first four concertos were his famous The Four Seasons.

The Four Seasons: Opus 8 Nos. 1-4

Had it not been for the Turin collection The Four Seasons may have never been resurrected from their archive, dusted down and brought back into public awareness. Although ‘Le Quattro Stagioni’ were not among the Turin find the excitement about the discovery meant they were granted a new lease of life.

Vivaldi - manuscript Inverno

Score for L’Inverno (Winter)

The first four Opus 8 concertos are now the most widely recorded pieces in classical music history repertoire. Since the very first recording made by Alfredo Campoli in 1939 there have been over a thousand different recorded versions.

Vivaldi - I-Musici-Felix-Ayo-Vivaldi-The-Four-Seasons

With records, CDs and digital downloads to sell and with so many versions of such a popular work it’s crucial for artists to emulate a critical business practice: differentiation.  There’s an array of classical and period baroque instruments, chamber groups, orchestras and ensemble styles, giving licence to the soloist and musicians to embellish, alter the tempo and put their personal touch to it,  in order to distinguish them from other recordings and performances.

Vivaldi - Alan Lovbeday AOSMITF 4 Seasons

The seminal 1969 recording by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields featuring violinist Alan Loveday under the baton of Sir Neville Marriner, reputedly catapulted the piece from its recondite realm to that of mainstream consumption.

The third movement from ‘Winter’ of that album:

Nigel Kennedy’s 1989 recording of The Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra sold over two million copies, becoming one of the best-selling classical works ever.

Vivaldi - Nigel Kennedy 4 seasons

Gil Shaham and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra recorded The Four Seasons as well as a music video for the first movement of ‘Winter’ that was featured regularly on The Weather Channel in the mid-1990s.

Today, it seems unthinkable that Vivaldi could have been forgotten and overlooked by history.

Personally, I love to play The Four Seasons and find ‘Winter’ by far the hardest to master, being written in the key of F minor.  I love the hashtag (sharp notes) but four flats haunt me…

I recently learnt that Vivaldi actually wrote sonnets to accompany the Four Seasons, which the music relates to perfectly. It’s an early example of programme music, a genius of descriptive musical storytelling that conjures up vivid scenes in your mind…

Vivaldi - Perlman IPO 4 Seasons

Between 1718 and 1720 Vivaldi left Venice and travelled to the countryside of Mantua; where it is believed he absorbed the setting and inspiration for his most ‘nature oriented’ work!

La Primavera (Spring) RV 269

In the first movement the birds are represented by the most sublime trills, and the gentle melody that evokes the murmur of the brook, followed by the semi quavers which indicate a quick storm, followed by the birds again as the air clears…

Itzhak Perlman and IPO strings delight:

L’Estate (Summer)  RV 315

The first movement in particular gives me a sense of a sweltering, bleak and languid environment. I can feel how hard it must be for Vivaldi to breathe, his asthma aggravated by the humidity. It’s written in G minor, which is considered to be the ‘darkest’ key. Overall the feel of the second movement is listless. It fills me with torpor…until the third movement he unleashes the storm to end all storms!

Julia Fischer and the strings of The Academy of St. Martin-in-the Field perfectly capture the deeply suffocating spirit of this concerto:

L’Autunno (Autumn) RV 293

The third movement seems to poke fun at the hunters; I think Vivaldi was definitely a member of the anti-hunting lobby!

The dotted quavers  signify the plodding hooves of cruel men on their clumsy horses. As the tempo increases you can hear the prey running for its life. The chords begin to raise a semitone with each phrase, increasing the pressure on the animal as the hunters and dogs close in. Gun shots ring out, the animal finally gives up its struggle and you imagine you can hear the dogs laughing… The final insult occurs after the main theme returns at the end of the finale signifying the hunters going about their deathly business.

I love Giuliano Carmignola and I Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca’s interpretation:

L’Inverno (Winter) RV 297

The opening movement sounds very metallic and visceral, (thanks to the use of the bow very close to the bridge). You can definitely hear teeth chattering!

This performance by Il Giardino Armonico sends chills down my spine!

Arrangements of The Four Seasons

Vivaldi actually re-scored his ‘Spring’ allegro for use in the opening overture and chorus of his opera Dorilla in Tempe, thus setting the trend for future transcriptions, covers, remixes, adaptations and mashups.

The fact that so many improvisations have been possible is testament to Vivaldi’s skill as a composer.

In 1765 French organist and composer Michel Corrette arranged ‘Spring’ as a choral motet for choir and orchestra: Laudate Dominum de Coelis, subtitled “Motet à Grand Chœur arrangé dans le Concerto de Printemps de Vivaldi”. The words of Psalm 116 are set to the music with vocal soloists performing the solo violin parts.

Vivaldi’s inventiveness paved the way for Beethoven to write the ‘Pastoral’ symphony in 1808 also featuring drunken peasants and a storm.

In 1969 the Swingle Singers did an a cappella cover from their album the Joy of Singing.

In Argentina Ástor Piazzolla published Estaciones Porteñas, ‘The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires’ in performances by various artists since 1970.

Jacques Loussier and his jazz trio covered the ‘Four Seasons’ in this wonderful performance:

Vanessa Mae was the first violinist to use an electric violin on her crossover version of the Presto from ‘Summer’ and following in her footsteps there have been various arrangements for harp, electric guitar, choral and rock remixes.

I particularly like this choral version of ‘Winter’ by the Accentus Chamber Choir:

Arrangement for Flute of ‘Winter’ by Jean-Pierre Rampal & Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra:

A gorgeous second movement from ‘Winter’ for the oboe with Albrecht Mayer and New Seasons Ensemble:

In 2012 composer Max Richter created a postmodern and minimalist re-composition released as ‘Recomposed – Vivaldi The Four Seasons’. Working with solo violinist Daniel Hope, Richter discarded around seventy five percent of the original source material. A live recording with the composer at Le Poisson Rouge in New York:

There’s even a flamenco/tango arrangement of Spring by Gustavo Montesano and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra!

Opus 8 Nos. 5 – 12

Here are three of the remaining eight works that follow The Four Seasons in the Opus 8.

Violin Concerto ‘La Tempesta di Mare’ in E-Flat major, Op. 8 No. 5 RV 253 by Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra:

Violin Concerto in C Major, ‘Il piacere’ Op. 8 No. 6, RV180 – Andrew Manze and the Academy of Ancient Music:

Concerto No. 7 in D minor, ‘Per Pisendel’, Op. 8 No. 7 RV 242 by Giardino Armonico:

Other Violin Favourites

I love the way Anne Akiko Meyers plays all three parts in his Triple Violin Concerto in F Major RV 551:

Il Rosignuolo – Concerto for violin, organ, strings & B.C. in A major, RV 335a by MusicaAdRhenum:

Violin Concerto in E Major, RV 271 ‘L`amoroso’ played as a tender love song by I Musici:

Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.  11 No.  2 ‘Il Favorito’ (RV 277) first movement by Giuliano Carmignola & I Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca:

´La Stravaganza` 12 Violin concertos Opus 4, by Rachel Podger and Arte Dei Suonatori:

Violin Concerto in A Major, ‘The Cuckoo’ (RV 335) with Giuliano Carmignola:

Violin Concerto in D Major, ‘Il Grosso Mogul’ (RV 208) by Il Giardino Armonico:

Sonata for 2 violins & B.C. in D minor, Op. 1 No. 12 (RV 63) ‘La Follia’ by Il Giardino Armonico:

Transcriptions and Arrangements

Violin Concerto in D, Op. 3 No. 9 (RV.230) – arr. for trumpet, violin, cello and harpsichord with Alison Balsam:

Bach Sicilienne from Concerto in D minor, BWV596 after Vivaldi RV 565, Alexandre Tharaud:

The largo of the Lute Concerto in D Major, RV 93 performed on classical guitar by John Williams always transports me to a place beyond words:

Trio Sonata Op. 1 No. 12 ‘La Follia’ by the Barrios Guitar Quartet:

Concertos for other instruments

This one really pulls my heart strings! Adagio from the Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major RV 398 by Rostropovich:

Heinz Holliger on form in the second movement of the Oboe Concerto in C major, RV 452:

Piccolo Concerto in C major, RV 443 – Il Giardino Armonico:

Flute Concerto in G minor, ‘La Notte’ RV439 with Fabio Biondi & Europa Galante:

Examples of sacred music

I don’t think there’s any doubt about Vivaldi’s faith when you listen to his sacred works. Here is a selection of some of my favourites, but there are many I have yet to discover!

Gloria in Excelsis in C Major, (RV 588):

Motet Nulla in mundo pax sincera (RV630):

“Et in terra pax hominibus” with Emma Kirkby, Michael Chance & Tessa Bonner:

Dixit Dominus was rediscovered in 2005 by Australian scholar Janice Stockigt. (RV807):

Nisi Dominus (RV608) by the Academy of Ancient Music and Christopher Hogwood:

Modern Catalog of Works

Although both CE (Complete Edition) and Fanna numbers (F.) have been used in the past, the modern catalog of numbers attributed to Vivaldi’s multitudinous works was created in the 1970’s by Danish musicologist Peter Ryom and take the prefix RV – “Ryom-Verzeichnis” or “Répertoire des oeuvres d’Antonio Vivaldi”. They do not necessarily follow in consecutive order with adjacent works.

The end in Vienna

Although Vivaldi lived a comfortable life in Venice, (he made around 50,000 ducats in his lifetime) changing musical tastes meant his music was no longer in demand so he sold off a chunk of manuscripts to finance his last trip to Vienna.

He planned to serve as a composer at the imperial court of Emperor Charles IV and perhaps stage operas. Unfortunately his patron died soon after his arrival in the city, leaving Vivaldi without an income and he died penniless. Not a fitting end to such a magnificent career. His funeral took place in St. Stephen’s and he was laid to rest next to Karlskirche.

I have come to the conclusion that Vivaldi lived his life with as much exuberance as his music arouses in the listener. The sheer volume of his output is unmatched to this day; a feat of such unbridled passion for music as will probably never be seen again…