Menuhin at Davos

January 25 2014

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 assistant. 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 with 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 suppose 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)

Massine then invited her to join Colonel de Basil’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a successor of Diaghilev’s company.

She worked for a time with the Alicia MarkovaAnton 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 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. (Delius had completed the third of them in 1930 with Fenby’s help.) 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. For all his new-age diet and his yoga, he knew the value of comfort and safety. Hard as he worked, he was fond of saying that one did not always need to be doing something: he knew the pleasures of idleness. 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)

Menuhin’s first Davos was in ’89. I believe that he influenced the WEF policy on artists who were invited. People such as Rodion Shchedrin, Vladimir Spivakov, Jeffrey TateJulian Lloyd-Webber.

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 meeting became a bandwagon. This year, Gergiev was there, but, one feels, partly as a brand and star.

There was another dinner in 1998. Diana, 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:

NPG x20671; Yehudi Menuhin and Sir Edward Elgar, Bt by Aram Alban

12 Responses to “Menuhin at Davos”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    It was Michael Parkinson who, in 1971, brought Menuhin and Grappelli together. BBC tribute on Grappelli’s death in 1997:

    Grappelli’s guitarist-collaborator, Django Reinhardt, died in 1953.

    [Postscript: this clip has been removed from YouTube for usual reasons. I hope Google keep these deleted files in a private place, otherwise, with material from before 1980, they might be lost forever. Knowing their data-greed, I assume they do.]

  2. davidderrick Says:

    After the sentence “His commanding playing of the Chaconne from the second Bach Partita might be too emotional and subjective for some Bach tastes (not for mine).”, I had originally added “In the old-fashioned language of stereotypes, too Jewish. ([…] Menuhin was never a practising Jew. He censured Israel, but made several visits, starting in 1950.)”

    Email exchange with a friend.

    “Friend: One of the best things you’ve written, for me.

    Not so sure, however, about the ‘too Jewish’. Strikes me as perpetuating a stereotype. Given that so many of the great violinists of the 20th century were Jewish, I think it’s a meaningless statement.

    Self: I did say it was a stereotype. I’m usually/always referring to old ways of thinking, that’s sort of my bit of history, isn’t it? And that was the stereotype. Maybe I should take it out. Are you saying there is no such thing as Jewishness in art?

    This is serious stuff, so I might take it out.

    Friend: Saying something is perpetuating a stereotype, for me, doesn’t negate the fact that you’re perpetuating a stereotype.

    As to Jewishness in art, there’s much more nuance to that question than to whether it’s ‘Jewish’ to be an emotional violinist. Sounds like the kind of thing George Steiner probably wrote an essay on.

    Self: Jews and gypsies played violins in a certain wonderful way in villages in eastern Europe. If and where that expressive style is replicated just a bit … at various removes and through many filters … can’t it be called Jewish or gypsy like? Your point about so many violinists being Jewish, ergo the point is entirely meaningless is another stereotype, because you are saying that some memory or echo of that style never found its way into art performance. Really? Why not? And if and where it creeps into Bach, it is going to offend those who like their Bach drier.

    That was where I was coming from.

    Friend: I get where you’re coming from.

    Compare Menuhin, Heifetz, Oistrakh. Jewish style?

    Switching instruments, by this measure Lang Lang is one of the more Jewish pianists around.

    Self: One’s going to get into very dodgy territory going violinist by violinist. I was skirting on the edge of that territory. The point doesn’t occur to me with anyone, except (just maybe) with Menuhin. And it doesn’t do to dwell on it. And yes Lang Lang must be ultra Jewish. I’ve given up being snooty about him! I like him.”

    … To add a twist, that was an exchange with someone in Equatorial Guinea.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Menuhin was himself conscious of the violin as a part of his heritage, and he brings something into his playing from that heritage. A more modern and “authentic” performer does not.

    I agree with Nigel Kennedy, quoted in the Guardian:

    “[Kennedy] is particularly irritated by the soullessness of contemporary Bach interpretations, which he says lack passion, fire and dynamism. He also excoriates ‘so-called authentic’ interpretations that use period instruments to re-create sounds that he claims early composers would think ‘unbelievably blinkered’. According to Kennedy, ‘specialists are pushing Bach into … a ghetto, which leaves many people feeling that Bach’s music is merely mathematical and technical. I see it as my job to try to keep Bach in the mainstream and present his music with, rather than without, its emotional core.’

    Kennedy maintains that his old teacher is still the gold standard. ‘Menuhin was playing Bach on a fantastic spiritual level when he was a teenager. If you hear someone play vacant when they’re 18, they’re going to play the same type of shit when they’re 50. You can’t learn pathos or profundity.’”

  4. davidderrick Says:

    The monologues here give a sense of the wonderful Menuhin I met at our sessions; most of this is in English:

  5. davidderrick Says:

    Menuhin supported young players. Was his weakness a lack of sympathy with younger composers?

  6. davidderrick Says:

    On pp 123-5 of Delius as I Knew Him (1936), Fenby gives us Delius’s account to him of Elgar’s visit. Elgar talked about Menuhin.

  7. davidderrick Says:

    When I write: “It was a life almost impossibly full of memories and memorabilia”, I am writing like an American.

    Book title idea: Jews, Hungarians, Gypsies and Turks: Hapsburg Orientalism.

  8. davidderrick Says:

    Menuhin and Callas. Later Muhammad Ali and Nureyev … two balletic forces of nature and dissidents who sprang out of hidden societies “the West” knew little about, and at precisely the same time.


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