Exhibition marks centenary of Highgate violinist Yehudi Menuhin’s birth
PUBLISHED: 08:00 05 April 2016
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From child prodigy to philosopher and elder statesman, the long-lived career of the 20th Century’s best-known violinist is celebrated in a special season of the Menuhin Violin competition and an exhibition marking the centenary of his birth .
OK, he was born in New York to Russian parents and spent most of his life an American citizen.
But for a not insignificant 23 years, Yehudi Menuhin lived at No.2 The Grove, Highgate: a house he bought in 1959 for £27,000, which seemed a lot then but wouldn’t buy dustbin space there now.
Such a long residency means that Highgate can claim a stake in the international celebrations for the centenary of Menuhin’s birth in April – which include a special season of the Menuhin Violin Competition at the Southbank from the 7th to the 17th.
Whether he amounted to the greatest violinist of the 20th century is debatable - there are others, not least Heifetz and David Oistrakh, in the running for that title - but he was certainly the best-known, with a name that was emblematic for musicianship even among those who weren’t sure how to pronounce it.
And he enjoyed by far the longest career, which shifted from the fiddle to the baton in time for him to stay on the concert platform long after his dexterity as a player had given out.
He was playing (credibly) in public at the age of seven and made his concerto debut with the San Francisco orchestra by ten. At thirteen he played three concertos - Brahms, Beethoven and Bach - with the Berlin Philharmonic.
And before 20 was giving punishing recital tours throughout the world, clocking up 75 cities in 1934 alone.
By then he was already a recording star, one of the first. He signed with EMI in 1932, for discs (in those days it was discs, plural) of the 1st Bruch Concerto.
It began a collaboration that continued throughout his performing life, providing EMI with one the most celebrated issues in the history of recording: the Elgar Violin Concerto which Menuhin, aged sixteen, made with the LSO under the direction of the composer himself.
It wasn’t Menuhin’s only studio attempt at the piece, nor was it the best. But the fact that it has hardly been out of the catalogue in eighty years testifies to its power.
At sixteen, he was almost fully-formed as a musician, with an easy eloquence, a fierce attack, an expressive vibrato and an astonishingly mature sense of how to test the boundaries of good taste in romantic repertory without breaking them.
That he acquired such judgement and maturity is strange, because he had no formal education beyond music.
There was never time. Whatever Menuhin knew about the world he taught himself; and it accounts for his engagingly eccentric views on life, art, politics and every other subject that contributed in later life to his reputation as a guru.
In a single conversation he could offer solutions to the Northern Ireland conflict, BSE, poor posture, crime and Third World famine. And because he was Yehudi Menuhin he might be telling anyone from Nehru to the Pope.
He had the ear of the great. And the great found it useful to be seen lending their ear to this man who had no enemies, only admirers.
Mrs Thatcher positively chased him, and it wasn’t always welcome.
I remember being asked to supper at the villa in Gstaad from which he ran his legendary Swiss mountain festival, and being charged by someone from the festival to take the news that Mrs T was, unexpectedly, in town. I told him, and he went into a pantomime routine, joking that we “pull the curtains, bolt the door: nobody answer if she rings”.
That Menuhin transformed himself from mere musician into a philosopher/saint/guru was a planned move, making use of his celebrity to find a new role for himself when his violin technique began to fade.
But the most touching thing about his greatness was that he remained accessible to almost anyone who contacted him, Mrs T aside.
His time in Highgate was before I knew him; but accounts declare the house was overrun with visitors, assistants, hangers-on and wannabes – not least, the 16 year-old Jacqueline du Pre.
He was a soft touch when it came to young musicians; there was scarcely a violinist on the circuit who did NOT come with a written commendation - “dazzlingly gifted”, “must be heard”, “ a revelation” - from the Master.
His ability for being dazzled and revealed-to knew no bounds. His generosity of spirit left its mark on everyone around him.
When he sold the Highgate house in 1983 (to the rock star Sting), he gave a farewell concert to raise money for St Michael’s Church opposite. He only moved, so people said, because his wife Diana thought the air of Highgate was becoming too polluted.
Whether it was purer in their next home Belgravia is debatable.
But leaving Highgate had ironic consequences. Of all people, who did Menuhin end up with as a next-door neighbour? Margaret Thatcher.
The Menuhin Competition opens with a concert featuring Tasmin Little and the Philharmonia Orchestra on April 7, with a closing gala weekend, April 16-17.
Menuhin 100 exhibition runns at the Royal Academy of Music, Baker St (Details: ram.ac.uk). And Warner Classics have “The Menuhin Century”: a collection of 80 CDs, 11 DVDs in five boxed sets, that feature all EMI/HMV recordings throughout Menuhin’s life, plus the famous documentaries filmed by Bruno Monsaignon.
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