By Laurence Vittes

I only heard Yehudi Menuhin play once in person. It was 1989, and the piece was Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which Menuhin was performing with the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa, California. The 71-year-old virtuoso seemed to be playing against stiffness and pain more than he was playing the violin, yet despite his aging body, he was once again storming the musical heavens, defying the gods.

What made his performance all the more moving for me was that during the preceding two weeks, I had heard the same concerto played in Los Angeles, in three very different ways: by a jazzy Nigel Kennedy in Glendale, an elegant Ida Haendel in Pasadena, and a regal Anne-Sophie Mutter downtown.

Each of the three performances had breathtaking moments, but one thing stood out after Costa Mesa: Menuhin’s Beethoven made a difference.

“More than a performance,” I wrote at the time in Gramophone magazine, “it was a profoundly spiritual expression of an abiding faith in life.”

Making music to Menuhin meant revealing the soul, not just playing the notes; he believed that the music he made, and the issues he resolved in doing so, impacted the world.

The following recordings are landmarks within Menuhin’s recorded output, and should be in every string enthusiast’s collection.

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Elgar Violin Concerto London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Edward Elgar, cond., 1932 (EMI/Warner Classics) 

When Yehudi Menuhin was born in 1916, classical music was king. One of his future rivals, 15-year-old Jascha Heifetz, was already on his way to becoming wildly famous. Fifteen years later, Menuhin would himself become a string celebrity when EMI (now Warner Classics) invited him to record Sir Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto with the composer conducting.

Menuhin was only 16 when he went into the studio with Elgar, who was still spry at 75. The project appealed to a broad swathe of English classical music fans; understandably, after the recording came out and was a big hit with the British public, Menuhin played the concerto at the Royal Albert Hall, with Elgar conducting.

The concert began with concertos by Mozart and Beethoven conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham; after intermission Menuhin returned to play the Elgar. Menuhin later wrote in his bookThe Violin: “It was perhaps the one occasion which wedded me most firmly to the English people and established me as a part of the family of this island race, who made me ever more welcome over the years.”

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Paganini Concerto No. 1, “Mosè” Variations, “La campanella,” Moto perpetuo, 6 CapricesOrchestre Symphonique de Paris, 1930s (EMI/Warner Classics) 

Following the success of the Elgar, three EMI anthologies of lighter fare show Menuhin’s combination of swashbuckling attitude and technical perfection amid the exultant, magical joy of his music making. Each displays what James Ehnes once described to me as “the Menuhin who was always thought of as a musician who put the music first—also made incredible recordings of Paganini.”

The spiccato in the last movement of the Paganini Concerto No. 1 (1932, with Pierre Monteux conducting the Paris Symphony Orchestra), the Moses Variations, and the Caprices all are breathtaking, all instructive. As the impressions of inhuman precision and control mix with the irresistibly seductive musical results, you begin to understand why many violinists say Menuhin had the best left hand ever, and why it made his Paganini supreme.

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Bazzini, Bloch, Dinicu, Granados, Kreisler, Moszkowski, Novacek, Rimsky-Korsakov, Sarasate, Wieniawski (Encore pieces recorded in the 1930s) (EMI/Warner Classics) 

Everybody can play Bazzini’s “Le ronde des lutins” at breakneck speed, you think, until you hear Menuhin play it.

The spiccato was perfect. His crisp, well-timed attacks at the beginning of phrases inject the amount of energy needed to keep the music on the beat—all this so you can admire the glorious perfection of his 16th notes.

And after all, it’s what this relentless roll call of encore pieces by Kreisler, Sarasate, de Falla, and others, was written for.

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Mozart Violin Concertos Orchestre Symphonique de Paris, Georges Enesco [sic.] & Pierre Monteux, cond., 1930s (EMI/Warner Classics) 

Menuhin’s Parisian recordings of the Mozart concertos with his mentor George Enescu conducting reflect the young virtuoso’s expanding outlook and understanding of what the world had to offer. The sweet, muscular energy of their musical chemistry transforms Mozart’s Concerto K. 271a (whose authorship remains in dispute) into something beyond Mozart.

Guillaume Sutre, first violinist of the Ysaye Quartet for 18 years, says, “The first time I listened to K. 216, I simply cried and I didn’t know why. Today I’m still overwhelmed by this recording. This is something beyond music: Here is everything you could hope to find in paradise.”

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Bartok Sonata for Solo Violin, Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano Hephzibah Menuhin, piano, 1947 (EMI/Warner Classics) 

It was about Menuhin’s performance of his First Violin Sonata that Bartok wrote, “I did not think that music could be played like that until long after the composer was dead.”

The two men had met for the first time in 1943, and the Solo Sonata that Menuhin subsequently commissioned and then premiered at Carnegie Hall in November 1944 with the composer present represented an iconic cultural collaboration. In June of 1947, Menuhin recorded it with the emotional punch intact, enhanced by a sense of Hungarian idiom that must have come from Bartok himself.

Menuhin’s sister Hephzibah was a virtuoso pianist of expressive, refined tastes, and the perfect complement to her brother’s extroverted musical personality.

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Beethoven Violin Concerto & Romances Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond., 1947 (Testament) 

After playing the Beethoven Concerto for the first time with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 1947, Menuhin vowed never to play the Beethoven with another conductor. “It was one of my finest experiences, and one of the most intense from every point of view.” The 1953 studio recording with Furtwängler conducting the Philharmonia is justly famous, but this live recording has an immense feeling of occasion; moments like a rapt hesitation before ascending the upward series of arpeggios and then returning to the main theme in the first movement are engulfed in exhilaration and beauty.

Menuhin describes the historical context of the occasion inThe Violin: “The madness of the war [WWII] engulfed Furtwängler in a controversy, as he remained in Germany. People were unwilling to recognize that, although he remained in Germany, he had refused to compromise and had incurred the hostility of the Nazi regime. It was a long time before some Jewish people could open their hearts to Furtwängler, despite the reconciliatory power of his music.”

Brahms Violin Concerto Orchestra du Festival de Lucerne, Wiener Philharmoniker, Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond., 1949 (EMI/Warner Classics)

The Brahms Concerto is a similar success, a little less momentous in its sense of history, but warm and passionate, with the two great musicians opening up new vistas for each other.

Within their seamless chemistry at moderate speeds, Furtwängler’s broad, expansive conducting sets the stage for a reading of great warmth, dramatic power, and subtle rhetorical flexibility reminiscent of Menuhin’s mastery in the Elgar Concerto two decades earlier.

In another connection with the previous generation, Menuhin creates an arc in Kreisler’s cadenzas that emerges and then folds beautifully back into the musical infrastructure.

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Menuhin Meets Shankar Ravi Shankar, sitar, 1967 (EMI/Warner Classics) 

The genius of this collaboration—a huge commercial hit that helped introduce Indian music and musicians to the West—was allowing Menuhin and fabled Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar to go one on one within a basic composed framework that allowed them to improvise to some extent, without ever entirely losing control.

The flip side of the original vinyl, Enescu’s Violin Sonata No. 3 played by Menuhin and his sister Hephzibah, perfectly complemented the Indian classical music with a free-form sense of narrative in which strikingly opposed episodes exist magically without borders.

Though Menuhin remains an outsider stylistically, he connects with the music’s passion and believes that “anyone who obeys implicitly the instructions in Enesco’s extraordinary notation will sound like a Gypsy violinist,” as he says inThe Violin.

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Menuhin & Grappelli Play Jealousy & Other Great Standards Stéphane Grappelli, violin, 1985(EMI/Warner Classics) 

Menuhin’s other significant encounter with improvised music was with violinist Stéphane Grappelli, who had made the definitive, edgy, French takes on American jazz with guitarist Django Reinhardt and the Quintette du Hot Club de France.

In working with Grappelli, Menuhin made a key discovery in playing improvised music: “the freedom the soloist has when the rhythm is covered by someone else.” He helped introduce a jazz genre that until then had lived only on the American periphery, and yet was central to classical music’s ever evolving soul.

While Menuhin does not assume the stylistic acumen of Grappelli, his influence in this repertoire remains substantial. Anne Akiko Meyers says Menuhin’s Grappelli recordings show “how beautiful swing and freedom can be. I love that Menuhin was open to Grappelli’s gorgeous concept of violin playing . . . and seemed to thrive on it.”

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Beethoven: Spring Sonata, Kreutzer Sonata  Jeremy Menuhin, piano, 1985 and 1986 (EMI/Warner Classics) 

At the same time Menuhin was recording jazz with Stéphane Grappelli, he was also recording four Beethoven violin sonatas with a family member.

“There is only one other person besides my sister Hephzibah with whom I have ever managed to find a comparable balance and intimacy: my son Jeremy,” Menuhin wrote inThe Violin.

The relationship between the two had been difficult, but now they were together again on a high musical plane, participating in an illuminating, inspiring, give-and-take musical dialogue between father and son using the music that was their life’s blood.

You can hear the results of this intimacy at the opening of the Spring Sonata, where Yehudi plays the famous melody simply and lovingly before handing it over to Jeremy, who does something slightly hazy and magical with it.

The time spent listening to virtually all of Menuhin’s recorded output over a few months’ time has left me convinced, as Menuhin wrote about his lifelong passion in The Violin, “Despite every change of style, the violin, like the human voice, still demands a form of music which is singable and therefore moving and inspiring.

“In these days given to confrontation and violence, we are fortunate to have the violin as our companion.”

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