The Art of Violin: The Devil's Instrument / Transcending The Violin
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A documentary history of the violin in the 20th century featuring archival footage of many of the instrument's greatest players. Includes contributions from Yehudi Menuhin, Ida Haendel and Hilary Hahn.
A documentary film by Bruno Monsaingeon devoted to the 20th century's greatest violinists, The Art of Violin really cannot be faulted. The same, incidentally, can also be said of the similar volumes that cover the piano and singing, so there's never been a better time to collect a personal audio-visual archive of some wonderful historical performers. The added dimension provided by the painstakingly collected film material (here featuring no fewer than 20 outstanding soloists) is of exceptional value when observing violin technique, and the diversity of approaches presented here in loving detail is in itself a subject for endless comparison. The material mixes archive performance footage, much of which one might never have dreamed existed, with interviews and documentary commentary. However, rather than turn the project into a museum piece, Monsaingeon includes contributions from contemporary figures such as Itzhak Perlman and Hilary Hahn. An absolute must. --Roger Thomas, Amazon.co.uk
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The film is engagingly hosted by Itzak Perlman, with commentary also from Hilary Hahn and Ida Haendel, and another person who is not adequately identified. The sound quality is exceptionally good in most instances, given the limitation of technology at the times these were recorded. Most moving to me were the clips of Yehudi Menuhin, whose great heart is plainly evident in his playing of Bach's "Erbarme Dich" from St. Matthew's Passion and the Chaconne from the D-minor unaccompanied Sonata. But they are all dazzling and fascinating in their unique ways.
I might add that most of the clips in this film come from DVDs that are already out there, including Monsaingeon's film of Alexander Markov playing the Paganini Caprices (an excellent film and highly recommended. My favorite elements of the film definitely come from Ida Haendel and her comments about Ginette Neveu and other violinists; I have always held her opinions highly and once again she doesn't fail to deliver. She performed and recorded alongside of all the great ones and she knew most of them personally too. It would've been nice to hear her playing any one of her signature concertos - the Elgar, Walton, or Sibelius - but such was not to be. The footage of Michael Rabin was integrated very well into the film - in a short section devoted to prodigies whose careers were cut short - although I would've liked to have heard him playing something other than the Kreisler "Tambourin Chinois", with Milton Berle [big frown] as emcee. Most people do not realize just how important, and enormously talented Rabin was. Also included are a few minutes on Josef Hassid, a great talent on the level of Menuhin and Heifetz who sadly became insane and was dead by age 26. On the DVD cover, Ferras and Grumiaux are listed, but like Kogan, we don't get more than a few moments of their playing.
Elman, Enescu, and Francescatti get some fine coverage, along with Szeryng and Szigeti. Perlman makes an interesting comment about Szeryng - that Szeryng was kind of a mix of all the very greatest fiddlers rolled into one, which is exactly right. Although let's give Szeryng his due credit, he was one of the greatest, and one of the most disciplined performers. The segment on Elman was very welcome for me because barely anything on him still exists other than his recordings - and it was indeed true that Elman, along with others, suffered from "Heifetz'itis" - his career was greatly dampened by Heifetz, although he was still one of the greatest.
If Milstein hadn't gotten almost equal time in the film as Menuhin, I wouldn't have given it 1 star. Luckily Monsaingeon included some of Milstein's best footage including some from a CBS documentary from the early 80s - would've liked to see even more of that! A voiceover at the beginning of the film states that with the passing of Menuhin in 1999, the last of the great fiddlers had left us. Absolutely untrue. Ricci, who was also a student of Louie Persinger (who was also Menuhin's childhood teacher) was, and still is still around - and Ricci was one of the greatest of technicians. Menuhin's performance of the Bach Chaconne, which closes the film, is a far cry from great - and the final comment of the film is Gitlis saying that he was like the angel who came down to Earth. Sorry, I don't agree and I'm (by far) not the only one.
All in all, Monsaingeon made a good film. But it could have been Great if he had expanded it into a really good multi-part series that covered much more. Where was Anne-Sophie Mutter? Zuckerman? Mintz? Sarah Chang? Vengerov? Even Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg? Lelia Josefowicz maybe?? I can't stand Joshua Bell but even he is nowhere to be found here. I think Monsaingeon chose violinists whom he personally thought were the greatest. Kind of selfish, no?