A wistful Elgar violin concerto; Making discoveries in music -- with Yehudi Menuhin

Yehudi Menuhin, nearing an age when many violinists cease to play in public, continues to add distinction to an already long, noble, and varied career. Recently he played the Elgar violin concerto with the New York Philharmonic.

As a child prodigy he took the world by storm, playing the great concertos in knee pants, astounding listeners not just for his superb tone, but mature-beyond-his-years musical insights.

As with so many prodigies, Mr. Menuhin had problems adjusting to the process of maturation and a burgeoning career, and those problems manifested themselves most noticeably in bowing weakness and lapses in intonation that have marked his playing for many years.

However, Mr. Menuhin's style of music-making was never locked in purely tonal trappings. Rather, he has always chosen to look under the skin of music and elucidate his heartfelt feelings and discoveries - discoveries which have become increasingly subtle and profound. Therefore it has rarely been a problem overlooking those aforementioned lapses that would be intrusive in a less searching player.

Mr. Menuhin has not limited his musical activities exclusively to his fiddle. He founded the Bath Festival Orchestra in the '50s, and more recently the Menuhin Festival Orchestra. With the latter ensemble he has toured the world and recorded extensively. He has written several books, and was the star of a BBC series entitled ''The Music of Man.'' He has gone around the world as a humanitarian and an advocate for music, and there is no question that the insights gained in that cause have fed his musical acumen and made a Menuhin concert more than unusually rewarding.

Yes, I have heard the violinist in the Bartok Second Concerto and thought perhaps the time had come for him to retire his fiddle, or at least drop this particular score from his repertoire. And I have heard recitals here and there that offered severely mixed blessings.

But then there are his accomplishments - particularly the superb recordings from his numerous performances of the Brahms and Beethoven concertos with such maestros as Wilhelm Furtwangler, Otto Klemperer, Constantin Silvestri, and Rudolf Kempe. His Mozart is legendary. A performance of the Bartok Second Concerto with Antal Dorati (on Mercury Gold) is as fine as they come. He is equally at home in Elgar, Bruch, Walton, and Stravinsky. The list of records, as well as works composers have dedicated to him, is long and distinguished.

The concerto he has been most closely associated with throughout the years is probably the one for violin by Elgar. He has been its principal champion, and the recording he made when he was 16, with the composer conducting, is the standard by which all subsequent performances (and a few antecedent ones as well) have had to be measured. Most have failed that comparison.

It was impossible, then, to predict what might transpire at the New York Philharmonic when Mr. Menuhin and conductor Zubin Mehta collaborated on this very concerto two weeks ago.

As it turned out, something very special occurred. Mr. Menuhin's occasional technical shortcomings passed for naught in the face of such controlled insight, of such inward-probing emotions, of such profound beauty. There is in the music a wistful looking back to an age the composer was desperately saddened to see receding with such chaotic haste. Mr. Menuhin captured that mood exactly.

Elgar's music, incidentally, has always been underestimated. He is remembered for the ''Pomp and Circumstance'' marches that announce graduation processionals all across this land. Occasionally ''Enigma Variations'' shows up on a concert program, but few conductors go beyond to either of the splendid, brooding symphonies, or the symphonic study ''Falstaff,'' which remarkably distills in rich orchestral language the fat knight of Shakespeare's penning. The Cello Concerto is often encountered due to the dearth of remarkable concertos for that instrument.

Mr. Menuhin reminded us that the violin concerto is rich Elgar, and one of the great concertos for the instrument. It demands a mature player; most younger players tend to highlight the sheer brio of the solo part, and make treacle out of emotions and moods that require superior restraint and gentle hints for their proper communication.

Mr. Mehta framed the Menuhin reading with a robust, compelling propulsiveness , giving the music a grandiose majesty. In the haunting Andante, he and the orchestra matched Mr. Menuhin hushed moment for hushed moment, creating the sort of memorable performance one longs for in concert going but rarely encounters. The Philharmonic seemed inspired by the occasion and played handsomely. Beethoven's night on PBS

While on the subject of Mr. Mehta and his Philharmonic, a quick word should be said about the evening of Beethoven heard on PBS in stereo simulcast last Wednesday evening.

TV viewers were treated to only the Ninth Symphony, whereas the concert opened a half-hour earlier than airing time with the Fantasy for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra - the piece Beethoven used as a study for the Ninth.

The ''Fantasy'' is rarely heard, because it demands a good chorus and a first-class pianist to play the miniconcerto part. As a curtain raiser on the Ninth, it strengthens the symphony, giving the listener a full appreciation for the unique vision embodied therein.

Mr. Mehta suffused the Fantasy with a propulsive excitement, and Emanuel Ax tore into the piano part with stunning accuracy and deep sensitivity. How splendid a way to get into the mood for the Ninth, particularly the sort of Ninth Mr. Mehta serves. Others are more insightful, but few can sustain the unbearable tension and drive from beginning to end that Mr. Mehta spins.

The orchestra was in fine form, some rough brass moments notwithstanding. The New York Choral Artists made noises one would expect from a group twice its size. And the quartet of soloists is the most glamorous I have ever encountered - Margaret Price, Marilyn Horne, Jon Vickers, and Matti Salminen. It was a glittery, exciting evening that will be available to posterity not just via the PBS telecast; an RCA digital recording will be made from the live concert.

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