Whether Yehudi Menuhin was the greatest violinist of the 20th century is debatable – there are others, not least Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh, in the running for that title. But he was certainly the best known, with a name that signalled serious musicianship even among those who weren’t too sure how to pronounce it.
Menuhin was also the best loved, with a moral stature that extended beyond music into wider socio-cultural spheres (politicians queued up to be photographed beside him: not least Margaret Thatcher, who became his next-door neighbour and pursued him with a vengeance). And he enjoyed 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 waned.
So it was inevitable that his centenary last week would be marked by worldwide celebrations. And not the least of them was the 2016 Menuhin Violin Competition: an itinerant event that played at London’s Southbank Centre with a week of concerts, talks, films and exhibitions.
A peculiarity of this competition is that it’s for very young performers: juniors up to age 15 and seniors up to 21. Given the pressure, that might seem a questionable policy. But then, as Menuhin himself could testify, the violin is an early-start career. His own was up and running by the age of 10, and at 16 he made a legendary recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, conducted by the composer. So these children, as they were, were following precedent. And if they looked like children, they sure didn’t sound it.
Winner of the junior section was a 12-year-old Chinese-American, Yesong Sophie Lee, who came on in a party frock and, for the closing concert, led the Philharmonia Orchestra strings in a careful, poised, perfectly credible account of one of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. And at the same event, the 16-year-old winner of the senior section, Ziyu He from China, gave a cool, graceful account of the Dvořák Violin Concerto’s third movement that belied his thrusting fashion sense (he dressed like someone angling to become the Lang Lang of the violin).
The Menuhin celebrations also featured some distinguished former winners of the competition – Ray Chen, Tasmin Little, Julia Fischer – showing their successors how to do it. In the grand, gala finale, Fischer played the 1st Bartók Concerto with particular distinction.
One thing nobody could fail to notice, though, was that the finalists in both the junior and senior categories were overwhelmingly of Asian birth or heritage: the pendulum is truly shifting to the East in classical performance these days. As for British entrants, sadly, they got nowhere.