DVD & Blu-ray Reviews
Concert Magic (1947)
Published on February 10, 2006
Program: BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 1 in D: Allegro con brio; BACH: Preludio from Partita in E; WIENIAWSKI: Scherzo-Tarantelle; BACH-GOUNOD: Ave Maria; LISZT: Un Supsiro; CHOPIN: Mazurka in B-flat Major; Etude in E; Etude in F; Waltz in E Minor; MENDELSSOHN: Etude in F; BACH: Lord, Have Mercy on Me; PAGANINI: Moto perpetuo; SCHUBERT: Der Erlkoenig; TCHAIKOVSKY: None but the Lonely Heart; LOCATELLI: Caprice in D Major; BACH: Air from Suite No. 3; PAGANINI (arr. KREISLER): Caprice in A Minor; SCHUBERT: Ave Maria; Bonus: The Story Behind “Concert Magic;” NOVACEK: Perpetuum mobile (audio only)
Performers: Yehudi Menuhin, violin/ Adolph Baller, piano/ Eula Beal, contralto/ Marguerite Campbell, piano/ Jakob Gimpel, piano/ Symphony Orchestra of Hollywood/ Antal Dorati, conductor
Studio: EuroArts DVD 2054158
Video: 4:3 full screen B&W
Audio PCM Stereo
Length: 75 mins, Bonus: 57 mins
Advertised as “The First Motion Picture Concert,” this hugely- mounted 1947 production by Paul Gordon has no story line as such, simply a cast of splendid performers headed by Yehudi Menuhin who, that same year, would astound the world by spreading his message of peace and reconciliation to a shattered world by returning to Germany to play concerts in Berlin with Wilhelm Furtwaengler. Shot in the Charlie Chaplin Studios, Hollywood, the lighting and décor is quite simple, the camera shots (by Paul Ivano) taken from three angles: straight on, medium range; slightly above from about eight feet; and from the left, the camera near floor level.
Contralto Eula Beal is new to me: she looks like acros between Julie London and actress Lizabeth Scott. Strong voice, with deep throat and chest-tone projection. Adolph Baller, who had suffered under the Nazi regime, is in fine form for the Beethoven and Wieniawski items. Jakob Gimpel (1906-1989), who still earns some recognition for his having supplied the soundtrack piano work for The Mephisto Waltz film with Alan Alda and Curt Jurgens, makes an aristocratic first impression at the keyboard with Liszt’s Concert Etude in D-flat, “Un sospiro,” which he plays with brisk suavity and a velvet wash of colors. His B-flat Major Mazurka, Op. 7, No. 1 is pearly; the Mendelssohn Op. 104 Etude breezy, leggierissimo lightning.
The longest musical offering is Lord Have Mercy on Me from the St. Matthew Passion, in English, with Menuhin’s supplying the obbligato violin part; Antal Dorati conducts an orchestra comprised of West Coast musicians. The camera pans from Menuhin to linger on contralto Beal then back for the three principals in perspective. I saw and heard Menuhin play this wonderful music in Britain with Israeli contralto Sakai; but no pure audio performance of Menuhin in this music exists. Menuhin’s extended solo with orchestra of the melodic tissue tears into your heart. The mood for the Second Part shifts to bravura fluff with Paganini’s Moto perpetuo, with pianist Baller looking rather detached from the busy but repetitious acompaniment. The camera moves more audaciously for this one, from above and behind Menuhin, catching the violinist’s fingerboard and the piano keys in perspective.
Nice sound cut to Der Erlkonig, while we still see the page of the concert program about to turn. Ms. Beal sings Goethe’s plaintive song of the fateful night ride in German, her voice brightening for the Erl-king’s seduction of the panicky child. Gimpel returns, rather sang froid, for Chopin’s E Major Etude, lyrical then virtuosic in the trio section, in spite of his cool demeanor. The Etude in F finds Gimpel in more casual dress, not tails, but the interior work in thirds and sixths is impressive. Back to tails for the Waltz in E Minor, taken at a blistering pace, but the shifts in tempo rubato are subtle and elastic. Gimpel can thunder when he so desires. Contralto Beal returns for an English version of Tchaikovsky’s None but the Lonely Heart, her hands clasped rather statically under her ribs. In retrospect, we can say Beal possessed a solid vocal instrument, but she never became a superstar, nor can I recall ever seeing an LP with her name on it.
Menuhin dominates the remainder of the film, opening with Locatelli’s Harmonic Labyrinth, Ivano’s camera above and behind Menuhin shows his flurries and ever-moving bow arm. The campy page-turner returns, and Menuhin and Dorati collaborate for the Air in D concerto-fashion, courtesy of Wilhelmj – with Menuhin’s face expressing wistful resignation. The A Minor Caprice by Paganini, so pregnant for variations by the composer and others, is presented in the Kreisler arrangement for violin and piano. Menuhin plays with his eyes closed, but his violin has its tonal eyes wide open, alternately throaty and high piccolo. Fluid double stops. Menuhin’s vocal tone finds poignant expression in Ave Maria via Wilhelmj’s arrangement, the perpetual crowd-pleaser.
“The Story Behind Concert Magic‚” was recorded in Warsaw in 1997. Bernd Bauer wrote and directed the conversation with Humphrey Burton, introduced by strains from Wieniawski, with Burton asking Menuhin how the idea for the movie came about. Menuhin calls the film “an idea ahead of its time.” Menuhin recalls he had been recently married to Diana Gould, and he asked Boston music supporters to invest into Paul Gordon’s novel movie venture. The Boston ladies begged off, but Gordon raised the money to rent the hall and to engage Dorati. Menuhin’s father objected to the mix of Hollywood and great music, and he kicked a Hollywood emissary out of the house in Los Gatos. Menuhin recalls laughing obstreperously at The Magic Violin in Berlin. He admits to being “curious” to look back at Concert Magic and commenting on each of the selections. The camera (in color) catches Menuhin’s repose: he likes the “plain music, no rubbish” approach. “I played well, surprisingly, even so young,” Menuhin notes. He compliments Adolph Baller’s musicianship, “a companion in every way.” The whole program was packed into three days’ shooting. “Quite a lot of bow,” comments Menuhin. “I always liked to follow through with the bow, as tennis players do.” While the actual film program incorrectly notes Baller’s participation on the Bach Preludio, Menuhin says “the piece was my stock-in-trade during the War; it doesn’t call for great concentration but it has great concentration. Good fingering,” he notes, “but it is a bit mechanical,” he sees. “It’s a clean performance, but my later phrasing had more interest.” He and Burton like the side camera angle. “A good, even excellent student performance,” Menuhin judges it.
Menuhin first heard Scherzo-Tarantelle with Heifetz, which he calls excellent. “Shape, brilliance, sound, discipline,” each impressed him. “As good as my model,” Menuhin claims of the video. Menuhin recalls how enthusiastically the Armed Forces audiences responded to the Wieniawski. Burton calls Eula Beal “a promising San Francisco contralto.” Menuhin confesses he had only just met her at the time. Menuhin muses on Bach’s knowledge of the violin, where the placement of the fingers for the chords is to be, a gift shared by Bartok, Bloch, and Elgar. I must confess, while watching Menuhin’s rapt attention to music he so loved, I miss him, a tear or two in my eye. “Even more beautiful for being above the personal, but the pain of the world,” Menuhin comments. “It dispels our guilt,” he adds. “Something very persuasive. . .no extra show or gloss. . .very sincere,” Menuhin judges. “I am quite touched, quite convinced.”
The Paganini Moto perpetuo Menuhin calls “a challenging piece which takes stamina and spotless precision.” Menuhin’s wife Diana decorated his rooms with portraits and letters by Paganini. Memuhin humorously quips that although Paganini and Tartini supposedly made pacts with the Devil, “the Devil is responsible for some good things.” He likes the performance, in spite of the fact he always detested playing scales. It was at Enseco’s urging that Menuhin restored all three movements to the performance of the D Major Concerto. “I had no great technique, but I had great zeal. I always loved the arias in Paganini.”
The meandering of the D Major scale in the Locatelli elicits Menuhin’s admiration for Locatelli’s violinistic gifts. “It starts on three strings and eventually gets to four strings The trick is to keep the D and A strings open.” Burton likes the high camera angle–man on a ladder? Menuhin speaks of his acquisition of his instrument, the Prince Cayman Stradivarius: “It had the most beautiful sound and look, the red varnish. Stradivarius was very proud of it, the instrument having been made in his ninetieth year. Menuhin chose the Air because of Bach’s sense of the sacred; the assaults on our senses and our aesthetic values and humanity keeps Bach valuable. Menuhin lauds the Paganini Caprices, especially the Fourth (not on the video). At one point, Menuhin calls his left hand “a centipede.” “The A Minor is very adaptive,” notes Menuhin. “I like the tempo,” opens Menuhin. “Fine staccato, upbow, many strings biting the bow, a very sharp edge. Follows legato, crossing two strings in the same tempo. You have to cross two strings in the half tone. Octaves next, a special technique, the space narrowing on the fingerboard. All fingers vibrate, especially the weakest, the fourth finger. It’s very good music despite the technical demands. I had a knack for all of this.”
The Ave Maria meant a great deal to Menuhin, who first wanted it to capture the heart of a young lady, when he was aged nine. The Army concerts in Honolulu made it more significant. It had a settling, nostalgic, prayerful, meditative mood. “The men were in battle dress, preparing in total isolation for departure for battle. Another audience were the wounded, coming back happy to be alive.” The camera fixates on Menuhin’s face as he remembers. And I remember him fondly.