Lynn René Bayley
, November 2010
This extraordinarily rare footage will be of particular interest to fans of Yehudi Menuhin, Antal Doráti, and collectors of classical performances on film. Made in one-take sessions at the Charlie Chaplin Studios in Hollywood in 1947, it is the earliest surviving footage of Menuhin playing a complete concerto and the first film of an entire concerto. The liner notes claim this is the first musical performance “in the history of film,” but this isn’t true. The Vitaphone shorts of 1926–29 featured classical performers, mostly singers but also violinists Efrem Zimbalist (the complete second movement of Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata with Harold Bauer) and Mischa Elman, and the legendary 1920s New York Philharmonic playing the complete Tannhäuser overture.
Yet these films were revolutionary for their time as they were not inserts to a movie with a plot, but part of Paul Gordon’s film Concert Magic, which played in movie theaters across the country. The notes don’t say who else was filmed at that time, but when the final cut was made, the Mendelssohn concerto was deemed to be too long and removed from the final print. Menuhin himself had “scoured the world for my first recording of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto” for a half century to no avail. Publisher-producer Bernd Bauer finally found it after an extensive three-day search in one of 1,600 cans of film, spooled onto another movie.
Naturally, the prints are in somewhat rough condition, not only a little grainy but with Menuhin’s face occasionally whited out in long shot, but Bauer did a remarkable job of restoration. In the 1997 interview with Humphrey Burton, Menuhin confirms that the soundtrack was not recorded separately, as was customary Hollywood practice, but that the performances were shot as played. My guess is that the unnamed “Symphony Orchestra” is a mixture of Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl musicians; Doráti chose a smallish group, perhaps 50 players, which is appropriate for this concerto. Having never seen Doráti conduct before, I was amazed at his stillness and lack of flash. He is even more stationary on the podium than Arturo Toscanini; indeed, his sober podium manner put me in mind of Karl Bohm. I daresay that neither Doráti nor Böhm would find a job nowadays in our era of podium hoppers, jumpers, and head-wavers. He’d be considered too boring to watch.
But what a magnificent sound he draws from his studio group! Small wonder he was one of Toscanini’s favorite guest conductors of the NBC Symphony. To the best of my knowledge, he was the only one allowed to record with that orchestra, prior to the arrival of Guido Cantelli, besides Toscanini himself. Menuhin is in particularly good form; watching the films with Burton a half-century later, there is obvious pleasure in his eyes as he sees his younger self tossing off the music with so much élan. He tells Burton that Doráti was his “favorite conductor,” which I found surprising in light of his public statements from the late 1940s and early ’50s that his preferred conductor, and the only one he would perform and record concertos with, was Wilhelm Furtwängler, but since it was primarily Menuhin who cleared Furtwängler’s name after the war, there might have been a political motivation for this.
Menuhin makes two comments on his younger self, one good and one bad, of interest to violinists. The bad is that “I was holding the violin too high; that’s an awkward position to play from,” though it worked at the time. The good was, “Notice the position of my thumb. It’s perfect, not too high. I argue with young violinists all the time that the tip of their thumb should never protrude too far above the bridge.” Another interesting comment was that there were a few younger violinists who he would like to conduct the Mendelssohn concerto for.
Watching the encores is also interesting, as they were filmed in a drawing room set complete with drapes, furniture, and a fake picture window. Here, director Gordon used some interesting camera angles, including one from the side and a little below Menuhin’s left arm and another from slightly overhead. Menuhin has warm words of praise for Adolph Baller, a pupil of Leschetizky. The Nazis went out of their way to break all of his fingers. Luckily, he found a good doctor who was able to set them properly so he could play again. He succeeded Yehudi’s sister Hepzibah (who, by the way, I always loved) as his longest-running accompanist. There are, however, two surprises in the film that Menuhin had totally forgotten, one that Doráti himself replaced Baller as accompanist on the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 4, the other that he had played Bazzini’s Calabrese. Watching the Brahms performance, in which you don’t see Doráti at all until about three-fourths of the way through the piece, Menuhin commented on the improvisatory way the accompaniment was played, “almost like a cimbalom—he obviously did it just for fun!” But it was the Bazzini that really surprised him, as he rarely played it and never recorded it. “I must have picked up the music about that time and thought it would make a nice encore,” was all he could say. “It’s a fun piece, though.”
I was originally raised on Heifetz but it took me nearly 30 years to appreciate some of his records, since he was so close-miked that his tone often sounded abrasive, but I fell in love with Menuhin’s sweet, singing tone the first time I heard it. Menuhin, Oistrakh, and Bronislaw Huberman are my three favorite historic violinists, so of course this DVD is a keeper for me. If you enjoy Menuhin as much as I do, particularly from this period when he was still in his masterly prime, you need this one in your collection.