I ran into Menuhin at Davos in 1997 and ’98. I’m sure he was there from ’93 to ’96. Why did I never meet him then?
In 1997 he presided over one of the small dinners which required one to sign up. Sixteen or eighteen people, including me, waited for him around a square table in a wood-panelled room on the ground floor of the dowdy Kongress Hotel, next to the Congress Centre. The session was called “Economics, the sacred and social wellbeing”.
He came in from the snow with his wife, gave his hat and coat to the porter, glanced at us and muttered, quietly but audibly, “I thought I was meeting people who could influence world opinion”. The pomposity seemed unMenuhinlike. But he settled down, sitting opposite me, and led a conversation at the table over the meal. He had just been in Poland with the Sinfonia Varsovia to record the complete Schubert symphonies and said what a pleasure that had been. A look of intense concentration would cross his face occasionally, but unaffectedly, and reminded one of the nobility, transcendence and force of his playing.
It was hard to do the math with Menuhin. He had known George Enescu and Adolf Busch. He had played under Elgar in London and in Paris and had seemed to rejuvenate the old composer. Had commissioned a solo sonata from Bartók. His early recordings of Sarasate, Bazzini, Kreisler, Rimsky-Korsakov, Wieniawski, Moszkowski seemed to come from old Europe, not from an American born in 1916.
With Britten, he had performed for the surviving inmates of Bergen-Belsen. Later that year he had paid his first visit to Russia, at the invitation of the Soviet government before the Iron Curtain had fully fallen, and begun his friendship with David Oistrakh. It was a life almost impossibly full of memories and memorabilia and he was conscious of its extraordinariness. And here he was, only eighty years old.
The next morning, on the Davos Promenade, someone trotted up behind me and said: “Mr Derrick! You saved the evening.” It was Menuhin’s amanuensis. I can’t remember his name. I must have looked surprised. I can’t now, and could hardly then, remember anything I had said. “You certainly broke the ice. Lady Menuhin would like to send you her book and I am sure they would like to see you in London.”
She had probably said to him: “Really, Yehudi, you weren’t exactly charming when you came in.” I said I’d be delighted to meet her. She had been wonderful at the dinner: funny and outspoken, so outspoken at times as to be a bit embarrassing, like Pauline Strauss or Susana Walton.
“She is not well today, and is in bed.” But I took their London number and later that day an inscribed copy of Diana Gould’s, Lady Menuhin’s, A Glimpse of Olympus arrived at my hotel.
It was difficult to grasp that I was living in the same city as them and within walking distance. Diana Gould, four years older than Yehudi, had been a dancer. She had studied with Lubov Egorova in Paris and Marie Rambert in London. Diaghilev spotted her and invited her to join his Ballets Russes (in Paris), but he died before it could happen. She was then engaged to dance with Anna Pavlova’s troupe in London, but she also died. I presume the company was dissolved. She continued to dance at Rambert’s Ballet Club and created roles there with Frederick Ashton.
She danced in Max Reinhardt’s production of The Miracle at the Lyceum in 1932 and with George Balanchine’s Les ballets 1933 in London and Paris. She declined Balanchine’s offer to join his school in the US, which became the New York City Ballet. “Longing to say yes, but young and frightened at such a great leap into what might be the dark, this idiotic English virgin [...] said no.” (A Glimpse of Olympus.)
She also worked for a time with the Alicia Markova- Anton Dolin company in London. She acted in theatre. During the war she was the leading dancer of the Arts Theatre Ballet and prima ballerina of Jay Pomeroy’s Russian Opera and Ballet Company at the Cambridge Theatre. From 1944 to ’46 she acted, danced and sang the role of Frou Frou in The Merry Widow in London and on an ENSA tour in Egypt and Italy. She married Menuhin in 1947, after he had divorced his Australian wife Nola.
She was described by Anna Pavlova as the only English dancer she had seen who “had a soul”, by Arnold Haskell as “the most musical young dancer the English dance has produced”, and by herself as “the awfully frank and frankly awful Diana”. (Wikipedia, first and last; Guardian.)
A Glimpse of Olympus appeared in 1996 and was about her own life. There had been an earlier memoir, in 1984, Fiddler’s Moll.
She threw herself into Menuhin’s life, but sometimes felt an “agonising nostalgia” for her years in the ballet. “He cannot fight for himself.” His memoirs speak of her “grace, intelligence, ardour, vitality and depth of feeling”. “It is a joy, a comfort and an inspiration to know beauty in many different forms: the sound of a violin, the objects around one, above all the beauty of one’s wife.” (Telegraph, first two and last; Guardian.)
Unsympathetic ears can find the Menuhin sound harsh on occasion, like Callas’s voice. As his technique declined, there were no doubt some scratchy performances. His commanding playing of the Chaconne from the second Bach Partita might be too emotional and subjective for some Bach tastes (not for mine).
Michael Kennedy, DNB: “His technique was often suspect mainly because of a weakness of his bowing arm, causing the bow to ‘stutter’ on the strings. He traced the fault to his studies with Adolf Busch: ‘If you look at the old photographs, the position of the bow arm is absolutely atrocious – the high elbow with a pressure exerted through the first finger and hence the lack of a proper balance in the bow. The trouble is I played too well. I never studied with a pedagogue like Carl Flesch.’ [...] Whatever imperfections there may have been in his technique on occasions, [...] at its best his playing had a seraphic spiritual quality which seemed to come from some supernatural source.”
Enesco and Dinu Lipatti were for him manifestations of a “spiritual realm, impregnable in its resistance to [...] pain and suffering”. (Foreword to Dragos Tanaescu, Grigore Bargauanu, Lipatti, English edition, London, Kahn and Averill, 1988.)
I called 65 Chester Square on returning to London. Menuhin picked up the phone. “Oh yes, yes …” The call wasn’t awkward, but, of course, it led to nothing. I had thanked his wife at Davos with a note, but why didn’t I ask to speak to her?
Menuhin had a feeling for England and he became a British citizen. His relationship with English music – Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Tippett, Britten – is a subject by itself. He was a fine Elgar conductor as well as player. Delius must have heard of Menuhin, because when Elgar flew to Paris in the early summer of 1933 to conduct Menuhin in his concerto in the Salle Pleyel, he also took a taxi to Grez to spend an afternoon with the blind composer. Eric Fenby was away, but decades later, Menuhin recorded the three Delius sonatas with Fenby accompanying. He also recorded Delius’s concerto, and, with Paul Tortelier, the double concerto. Menuhin discography. Covers him as performer, not conductor.
He took up conducting as director of the Bath Festival (1958-68). In the ’80s, he began to withdraw as a soloist and to conduct more. His last appearance as a violinist was at the Gstaad Festival in 1996. His style as conductor was swift, intuitive, poetic, the results notably unportentous. He recorded a Beethoven cycle with the Sinfonia Varsovia. I found myself missing something weightier and more ernst in the fifth.
Menuhin was indiscriminately generous in his views on many people and liberal in his views on social matters. Hard as he worked, he was fond of saying that one did not always need to be doing something: he knew the benefits of idleness. For all his new-age diet and his yoga, he knew the value of comfort and safety. In the last part of his life he had houses in Belgravia and Gstaad and on Mykonos. He could be vain.
Michael Kennedy in DNB: “In New Zealand [in 1951] Menuhin read a book about yoga, which he practised for the rest of his life. He learned more about it when he toured India in March 1952. After discussing it with the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, he was challenged to stand on his head in full evening dress at a state reception. He did so, whereupon Nehru followed suit. He also formed a firm friendship with the great sitar player Ravi Shankar. Thereafter he was an enthusiast for Indian music and played in partnership with Shankar, just as some years later he played violin duos with the jazz virtuoso Stéphane Grappelli.”
The Nehru challenge would have made a good Davos moment. Menuhin was often or always at Davos with Shankar.
“The performing artist continually reviews the hours, days and weeks preceding a performance, charting the many elements that will release his potential – or put a brake upon it. He knows that when his body is exercised, his blood circulating, his stomach light, his mind clear, the music ringing in his heart, his violin clean and polished, its strings in good order, the bow hair full and evenly spread, then – but then only – he is in command. But neglect of the least of these elements must gnaw his conscience. The audience, even the critic, may not suspect his troubled conscience, or may ascribe a blemish to an irrelevant cause, all unaware of the player’s silent admission of insufficiency, his self-disgust, his begging to be given another chance. Even if no fault is noted, the audience’s plaudits, their stamping and standing, are of no comfort to him then.
“So a violinist (like any other artist) lives in training. He makes his body his vocation. His stance must be erect yet supple so that, like a graceful reed, he may wave with the breeze and yet remain perfectly aligned from head through spine to feet. He is a living structure stretched between the magnets of sun and earth.” (Unfinished Journey.)
Some of these may have come back, but after Menuhin died, the WEF became more celebrity-conscious than it had been before (Bono, Hollywood). The celebs jumped on the bandwagon. This year, Gergiev was there, but, one feels, partly as a brand and star.
There was another dinner in 1998. His wife, increasingly bedridden, wasn’t in Davos. Somebody said after it that his relation to the discussion was that of a soloist with an ensemble, coming forward, picking up the argument, withdrawing. He said at one stage: “Of course this [life] isn’t everything.”
No dinner in ’99, or none that I got to, but he conducted a closing concert in the Sanada room, the first Menuhin Davos concert I’d been aware of. I think a Rossini overture, a Mozart violin concerto and Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony. I don’t have programmes for ’98/’99 and can’t remember who the players were. He came to the back of the room between bows at the end, arms swinging in fatigue. (I remember swinging arms the last time I saw another immigrant Jew married to an English Diana: Fred Uhlman.)
It was one of the last concerts of a performing career that had begun in San Francisco seventy-six years earlier. Six weeks later he died in a Berlin hospital, having written from his bed a letter on some social matter to a policy-maker and world opinion-influencer, Gordon Brown. His wife died four years later.
I was riveted by at least one Menuhin recording before I could read, a ten-inch EP of Bach and Handel: the double concerto with Gioconda de Vito and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Anthony Bernard, and the second trio sonata in Handel’s opus 5, in D, with Menuhin, John Shinebourne and George Malcolm. It’s considered a rare record. I’m told that I listened to it “very quietly and intently” at the age of three. The performance style is old-fashioned. Are there really only three players in the Handel? YouTube has the first movement of each piece:
Elgar, Menuhin, Albert Hall, November 20 1932; Menuhin is glancing towards Beecham, who conducted him before the interval in Bach and Mozart; Elgar took over in the second half in the second of his three Menuhin collaborations: