If any of you remember the movie “Children of a Lesser God” (1986), you might remember that the second movement of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in D minor BWV 1043 (Bach’s Double Concerto) was used to try to describe music to a deaf girl.  The whole concerto is a stunning piece of music, and here it is played by two highly-renowned violinists of the 20th century – Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh.  What follows the link is a little bit about these two musicians.

Bach Double Violin Concerto, Menuhin and Oistrakh

Yehudi Menuhin, Baron Menuhin, OM KBE (April 22, 1916 – 12 March 12,1999) was an American-born violinist and conductor who spent most of his performing career in Britain. He is widely considered one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century.

Early life and career

Yehudi Menuhin was born in New York City to a family of Belorussian Jews. In late 1919 Moshe (Menuhin’s father) and his wife Marutha (née Sher) became American citizens and changed the family name from Mnuchin to Menuhin.  Menuhin’s sisters were concert pianist and human rights activist Hephzibah, and pianist, painter and poet Yaltah.

Menuhin’s first violin instruction was at age four by Sigmund Anker (1891–1958); his parents had wanted Louis Persinger to teach him, but Persinger initially refused. Menuhin displayed exceptional talent at an early age. His first public appearance, when he was seven years old, was as solo violinist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1923. Persinger then agreed to teach him and accompanied him on the piano for his first few solo recordings in 1928–29.

When the Menuhins moved to Paris, Persinger suggested Menuhin go to Persinger’s old teacher, Belgian virtuoso and pedagogue Eugène Ysaÿe. Menuhin did have one lesson with Ysaÿe, but he disliked Ysaÿe’s teaching method and his advanced age. Instead, he went to the Romanian composer and violinist George Enescu, under whose tutelage he made recordings with several piano accompanists, including his sister Hephzibah. He was also a student of Adolf Busch.

World War II musician

Menuhin performed for Allied soldiers during World War II and, accompanied on the piano by English composer Benjamin Britten, for the surviving inmates of a number of concentration camps in July 1945 after their liberation in April of the same year, most famously the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He returned to Germany in 1947 to play concerto concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler as an act of reconciliation, the first Jewish musician to do so in the wake of the Holocaust, saying to Jewish critics that he wanted to rehabilitate Germany’s music and spirit.

Later career

Menuhin regularly returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, sometimes performing with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. One of the more memorable later performances was of Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto, which Menuhin had recorded with the composer in 1932.

During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Menuhin made jazz recordings with Stéphane Grappelli, classical recordings with L. Subramaniam and albums of Eastern music with the sitarist Ravi Shankar. In 1983 he founded the Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists in Folkestone, Kent.

His recording contract with EMI lasted almost 70 years and is the longest in the history of the music industry. He made his first recording at age 13 in November 1929, and his last in 1999, when he was nearly 83 years old. He recorded over 300 works for EMI, both as a violinist and as a conductor. In 2009 EMI released a 51-CD retrospective of Menuhin’s recording career, titled Yehudi Menuhin: The Great EMI Recordings. In 2016, the Menuhin centenary year, Warner Classics (formerly EMI Classics) issued a milestone collection of 80 CDs entitled The Menuhin Century, curated by his long-time friend and protégé Bruno Monsaingeon, who selected the recordings and sourced rare archival materials to tell Menuhin’s story.

Menuhin died in Martin Luther Hospital, Berlin.

Soon after his death, the Royal Academy of Music acquired the Yehudi Menuhin Archive, which includes sheet music marked up for performance, correspondence, news articles and photographs relating to Menuhin, autograph musical manuscripts, and several portraits of Paganini.

David Fyodorovich Oistrakh (September 30, 1908 – October 24,1974), PAU (Popular Artist of the Soviet Union), was a renowned Ukrainian-born classical violinist and violist.

Oistrakh collaborated with major orchestras and musicians from many parts of the world and was the dedicatee of numerous violin works, including both of Dmitri Shostakovich’s violin concerti, and the violin concerto by Aram Khachaturian. He is considered one of the preeminent violinists of the 20th century.

Early years

He was born in the city of Odessa, Ukraine into a Jewish family. His father was David Kolker and his mother was Isabella Beyle, who later on married Fishl Oistrakh.  At the age of five, young Oistrakh began his studies of violin and viola as a pupil of Pyotr Stolyarsky. In his studies with Stolyarsky he became very good friends with Iosif Brodsky, Nathan Milstein and other great violinists with whom he collaborated numerous times after achieving fame since their beginnings as fellow students at Stolyarsky School.

In Moscow

In 1927, Oistrakh relocated to Moscow, where he gave his first recital and met his future wife: pianist Tamara Rotareva (1906–1976). They were married a year later, and had one child, Igor Oistrakh, who was born in 1931. Igor Oistrakh would follow his father’s path as a violinist, and eventually performed and recorded side-by-side with his father, including Bach’s Double Concerto, which they first recorded in 1951, and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. In at least one of the recordings of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, Igor Oistrakh played violin, while David Oistrakh played viola.

From 1934 onwards, David Oistrakh held a position teaching at the Moscow Conservatory, and was later made professor in 1939.

From 1940 to 1963, Oistrakh performed extensively in a trio that also included the cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky and the pianist Lev Oborin. It was sometimes called the ‘Oistrakh Trio.’ Oistrakh collaborated extensively with Oborin, as well as  acques Thibaud, a French violinist.

During World War II

During World War II, he was active in the Soviet Union, premiering new concerti by Nikolai Miaskovsky and Khachaturian as well as two sonatas by his friend Sergei Prokofiev. He was also awarded the Stalin Prize in 1942. The final years of the war saw the blossoming of a friendship with Shostakovich, which would lead to the two violin concertos and the sonata, all of which were to be premiered by and become firmly associated with Oistrakh in the following years. Oistrakh’s career was set from this point, although the Soviet Union was “protective” of its people and refused to let him perform abroad. He continued to teach in the Moscow Conservatory, but when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, he went to the front lines, playing for soldiers and factory workers under intensely difficult conditions. Arguably one of the most heroic acts in his life was a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto to the end in the central music hall during the Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942 while central Stalingrad was being massively bombed by the German forces. However, other sources indicate that Oistrakh performed in Leningrad that winter. Whether Oistrakh performed in Stalingrad is unconfirmed.

International travel

Oistrakh was allowed to travel after the end of the war. He traveled to the countries in the Soviet bloc and even to the West. His first foreign engagement was to appear at the newly founded “Prague Spring” Festival where he was met with enormous success. In 1949 he gave his first concert in the West – in Helsinki. In 1951, he appeared at the “Maggio Musicale” Festival in Florence, in 1952 he was in East Germany for the Beethoven celebrations, France in 1953, Britain in 1954, and eventually, in 1955, he was allowed to tour the United States. By 1959, he was beginning to establish a second career as a conductor, and in 1960 he was awarded the coveted Lenin Prize. His Moscow conducting debut followed in 1962, and by 1967 he had established a partnership with the celebrated Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter.

Later years

1968 saw wide celebrations for the violinist’s sixtieth birthday, which included a celebratory performance in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory of the Tchaikovsky concerto, one of his favourite works, under the baton of Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Oistrakh was now seen as one of the great violinists of his time, among such luminaries as Romania’s George Enescu and Lithuanian-born Jascha Heifetz.

Oistrakh suffered a heart attack as early as 1964. He survived and continued to work at a furious pace. He had already become one of the principal cultural ambassadors for the Soviet Union to the West in live concerts and recordings. After conducting a cycle of Brahms with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, he died from another heart attack in Amsterdam in 1974.