February 16, 2016

Yehudi Menuhin, through the lens of Bruno Monsaingeon

The French filmmaker who has curated The Menuhin Century boxed set shares his memories of the great violinist.

The Menuhin Century 80-CD / 11-DVD boxed set will be released on 1 April for the Yehudi Menuhin centenary, and contains the book Passion Menuhin by Bruno Monsaingeon.

Wisdom, calm and hope

I first heard Yehudi play Brahms when I was four years old. It’s not the age at which a child would know the name of an artist or of a composer or a concerto, but it fired my vocation for music. On the spot I decided to become a violinist.

I first met Yehudi on the day of the Sputnik launch. Then I saw him play live in Paris, the Bach Chaconne. The impression has always remained with me; I remember every single note he played. He was radiating warmth; not just as a musician but as a man.

I was admitted to his master class in England and became his pupil for the duration of the master class. Afterwards he was kind enough to invite me to play the Bach Double Concerto with him, and then we played quite a bit together at his Festival Gstaad. This led to the production of a monumental amount of films – I think I did about twenty with him.

We were very close; I needed to see him as often as possible – but spending only half an hour with him left you with an imprint of wisdom, calm and hope.

This was something which I think only he had, that kind of influence on people that he met. And I’m sure everyone who has met him has the same impression. And not in the sense of imposing seriousness; he was a very amusing person, full of humour, and there was that incredible tenderness, that incredible ability not only to listen but to take into account what you had to exchange with him; always that sense of communion. And I believe that in as far as music was concerned it’s the same thing; there was not Menuhin the man, Menuhin the musician; this was a whole person.

Yehudi Menuhin enregistrantPhoto courtesy of the Yehudi Menuhin Trust

The most recorded artist ever?

It had been my dream, naturally, to see one day a gigantic edition of his enormous recording legacy. Menuhin seems to be, by my calculation, the most recorded artist ever. He died at the age of 83, he started recording when he was 12; that’s 71 years of recording career – absolutely amazing.

With Warner Classics we came up with a box in which priority would be given to recordings previously unpublished on CD, that existed on 33’’ or 78’’ but not on CD. That includes quite a substantial amount of his very beautiful recordings, such as the Bach Violin and Harpsichord sonatas.

Then naturally, we thought that producing something that would be really original in terms of unpublished material would be essential. I put together quite a few ideas about historical events that are characteristic of the 20th century, and Yehudi was probably the only musician of that caliber to have been a historical figure.

Unpublished recordings

In the vaults of Warner we found some extraordinary documents of works that for some unknown reasons were never released – probably of not finding an interesting coupling. We found some absolutely prodigious material such as the Schubert string quintet with two cellos, the Schubert string octet, previously unedited. These are documents nobody knows about so we have come up with a very interesting edition.

His activity with Furtwängler which is rather well-known – Beethoven, Brahms, Bartók… But there are also be traces of his appearances in Moscow in 1945. He was not only the first American musician to perform there after the war – I say American but he could be French, English, Swiss, anything he wanted. He spoke the most wonderful French, the most wonderful German, the most wonderful Italian… A few words of Russian, strangely enough, contradictory to his lovely sister Hephzibah who could speak Russian to perfection.

His original mother tongue had been Hebrew but he’d forgotten it completely. He was that kind of a real European. Yehudi could be at ease in any language you could wish to hear. He went to Russia, and there will be a special disc of some of his expedition to Russia, including unedited live performances.

I found in New York and bought at great cost 20 years ago some tapes of Yehudi’s first recorded live concert, in Carnegie Hall in 1940. And there are absolutely stupendous performances of the Bach E Major Concerto No.2, Paganini First Concerto, and the Brahms concerto. I thought this is the kind of thing that would be very interesting to have.

The collection contains lots of unpublished material, unpublished concerts, live concerts, works that he never recorded for release. That is extraordinary, as I would have thought that a man of his stature would have recorded everything in his repertoire, but that is not the case and I found extraordinary performances of concertos in various countries, such as the Bach Concerto BWV1052R from Ascona Festival that he never recorded in the studio.

Yehudi and Hephzibah

Yehudi and Hephzibah

One essential series in the boxed set is dedicated to Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin in duo. Their relationship had something absolutely magical. This girl, Hephzibah, four years younger than he, was on par with his genius. The most wonderful, intelligent, smart woman I ever met. A wonderful pianist. She was totally devoted to her brother, so she never really had, as Yehudi said, an ego-centric solo career as such.

So now we finally have a box which contains more or less everything they ever made together. For me this was a long-term project, I always thought it should come out one day. They were mythical; when they came out on stage holding each other’s hands, you felt you were in the realm of something absolutely heavenly that was going to happen. And it did happen. And we have enough for 20 albums of everything they did together.

The Universal Menuhin

In order, I hope, to give that universal image of Menuhin, it will be essential to have some of these EuroArts DVD recordings, performing but also being heard as a person. This image of universality is perhaps the most important characteristic of this amazing genius of a man. He touched everybody across all countries, little villages as well as capital cities, gigantic halls as well as tiny venues wherever he was, he had the same kind of radiation and love, and it’s a great event in the musical world to have this collection of his recordings. -Bruno Monsaingeon, Paris, July 2015

Yehudi Menuhin violin case