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Arts Desk

The Hidden Recordings of the Great Violinist Yehudi Menuhin

Violinist Yehudi Menuhin was born in NYC in 1916. In 1926, the child prodigy made his recital debut at the Manhattan Opera House and had his first concerto performance with the San Francisco Orchestra. From 1928 until the year of his death in 1999, Menuhin had the longest-running contract in the history of the recording industry with EMI Classics, which was recently acquired by Warner Classics.

The centennial of Yehudi Menuhin's birth is being celebrated by Warner Classics with a deluxe box set titled The Menuhin Century, featuring 80 CDs, 11 DVDs and a 250-page hardcover book. It documents the violinist's 70 years in front of the microphone. The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns explores the suppressed recordings retrieved from the vaults, now released for the first time.

Radio script:

What's wrong with this Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto recording? Made in 1959, but not heard until now, I mainly hear what's right with Yehudi Menuhin, at age 43 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult. However, Menuhin had long-standing ambivalence toward this beloved concerto. Not every violinist loves "The Tchaik" (as it's called). But hindsight listening is a bit less critical, and is concerned more with what's there, rather than what's not.

Recordings used to be made so much less expensively, that the likes of Van Cliburn could call a recording session with the Boston Symphony — Hey, let's do it! Tonight! — and then reject the results. We may never hear them. But boy, would I love to. And I don't care how bad it is.

Recordings could be sidelined for something as simple as an out-of-tune piano. Nothing so obvious afflicts Menuhin's rejects included in this set. One problem may have been the first-movement cadenza: Menuhin's pitch is not exactly spot-on. We don't care so much about that now, since Menuhin is seen as a humanitarian who happened to express himself with the violin. But maybe he was looking over his shoulder at Jascha Heifetz, still active in 1959 and whose playing was technically flawless.

Turning to Menuhin's rejected 1968 Schubert's String Quintet, the all-star lineup produces some beautiful moments.  But in both Schubert and Tchaikovsky, tempos get sluggish, often around transitional passages. That suggests that Menuhin was unconvinced by the basic structure. And without structure well in hand, the performance becomes just a series of hot moments.

Yehudi-MenuhinSigning78.jpg
Credit Fox Photos
Menuhin signing 78 RPM records in late 1930s.

Yet these are the recordings I turn to first, which probably says much about how times have changed. Recordings don't make much money these days. They're more like calling cards than appointments with posterity. One reason I like that is because during the heyday of the compact disc, recordings often had the life edited out of them. But here, under less-pressured circumstances, you're more likely to hear lightning captured in a bottle. Or a major artist like Menuhin seeming all the more human for struggling to achieve something, and not always getting it.

 

Another factor: with 91 discs sold for $187 in this box set, the average price per disc is two bucks. For 70 years of Yehudi Menuhin? You'll never feel cheated.