Yehudi Menuhin Plays Brahms' Violin Concerto

2 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: November 15, 2004
Missing the bigger picture

“People flock here almost every day … it is music that has saved the day.”

—Sir Yehudi Menuhin speaking from the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, East Germany, September 1982.

In the same city where the Brahms concerto was premièred (January 1879) and Bach spent much of his life, it is fitting that this EMI Music Video should feature those same composers, championed here by Yehudi Menuhin and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Kurt Masur.

Sadly, while there is much to admire, the passion, harmonic subtleties and multi-layered contrasts fail to emerge, leaving a performance that is all gloss and no substance.

Menuhin seems more focused on the camera than the inner workings of the repertoire’s most rewarding violin concerto. The “Allegro non troppo” never really gels; although filled with impressive double stops and well executed trills, it is marred by slippery portamenti, excessive rhythmic licence (the extended two-16ths-and-an-8th sequence quickly becomes unwanted triplets) and a preponderance of horizontal phrasing where the bar lines should be dismissed and the forward flow found.

Masur offers little support and—save and except for the final measure—is unable to connect the soloist to the orchestra; low-string pizzicati and winds are just behind his colleague’s entries or exits: very untogether.

The famed opening oboe line of the “Adagio” is delivered with extra cream and finesse, but Menuhin can’t find enough bow to sustain his turn with the same authority. Like an awkward a first date, the interplay between the violin and the orchestra lacks any notion of spontaneity.

With no time to reflect on the bliss of finding its way back to F major and saying “adieu,” the “Finale” is thrust rather than released into our ears. Here, with more scrubbing than is desirable and a few unexpected results from the excursions to the stratosphere, Menuhin and Masur both seem content with just getting through.

For its part, the orchestra responds valiantly; the gentlemen of the first violin section should receive bouquets of their own for consistently hitting the treacherous targets near the high end of their E strings. Bravo!

Director Bruno Monsaingeon captures some fascinating shots of Menuhin’s amazing hands at work; for that reason alone this video is worth acquiring. Unfortunately, the camera placements provide more views of Masur’s legs than were needed; the extreme close-ups of Menuhin linger far too long. Many of the superimposed woodwind images work beautifully (notably the “hands-to-hands” of the flute), but the clarinet link doesn’t dissolve quickly enough, reducing a fine shot to a disappointing one. The sudden cut to the hall’s installed organ pipes when the orchestra hits its first-movement fortissimo produces an unintended laugh rather than a visual “aha!” Framing the intensity of soloist at play is a much better use of that spectacular instrument.

Despite a few pops and some hiss, the sound is remarkably good, particularly in the Bach encores where Menuhin’s violin reveals its magical hues even as the “Allegro” skitters away while the “Largo” provides the most satisfying moments of the hour. JWR

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Director - Bruno Monsaingeon
Conductor - Kurt Masur
Producer - Lexi Godfrey
Music Producer - John Fraser
Violin - Yehudi Menuhin
Repertoire:
Concerto for Violin in D Major, Op. 77 - Johannes Brahms
Allegro Assai and Largo from Sonata No. 3 for Solo Violin - Johann Sebastian Bach
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