Menuhin and Gould With a Complete Bach Sonata

by Matthew Raley

No excerpts today, but a complete work in a film that is fascinating at many levels. Start with the performers, Glenn Gould and Yehudi Menuhin. It would be hard to find two more different characters.

Gould was eccentricity incarnate, seen here making a circular movement with his head that is, shall we say, unsettling, and seeming to talk to the keyboard. You can also, of course, hear him singing.

Menuhin was a study in elegance. Not only his left- and right-hand positions, but his posture and his tailoring are flawless. He has an economy of motion that is inspiring.

So, behold, the cherub and the gargoyle.

The piece itself adds another layer of interest. Bach’s Violin Sonata, BWV 1017, is a powerful work, and the third movement (pt. 3) is a favorite of mine. But the question always is, “How will the performer interpret this music?” Today, there is a consensus that we should play it Bach’s way — light, dance-like, less vibrato. This is a consensus I basically agree with.

At the time this film was made, the romantic interpretive approach to Bach was beginning to sound inauthentic. The heavy articulation, the dark tone, and the sentiment expressed in slides and accents, all turned counterpoint into a soup.

That is why Gould had formulated a modern interpretive approach to Bach at the piano. It was unsentimental: dry, spiky, fast. Some would still criticize his approach as mechanical. Gould was a controversial figure, especially for his 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, a sharp departure from the romanticism of the time.

Which brings us to the really fascinating layer of this film.

Gould is playing with the man who popularized the romantic style of playing Bach on the violin. Menuhin is credited with bringing the unaccompanied sonatas the attention they deserve from audiences in the 1930s. He plays here with all his famous warmth of tone, all his sustained vibrato, and even with one or two slides. (It is also the case that his intonation is no longer secure, but that is another difficult story.)

See if you don’t agree with me, you music lovers, that these two men achieved a common interpretation that works. I believe it has power even as the performers retain their musical personalities. Something of the contrast is part of that power. But their ensemble, their unity on such things as the length of 8th notes in the fourth movement (pt. 4), and their authority in playing the piece, all create an unusual synergy.

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