According to postings on the internet, Paul Gordon’s "Concert Magic" — reportedly the first full-length movie ever made that was entirely devoted to a musical performance — premiered in San Francisco on Friday, Oct. 8, 1948, and in Europe in 1950. The original film featured several important artists besides violinist Yehudi Menuhin (the film’s star performer) playing both solo and with pianist Adolf Baller. The other artists were contralto Eula Beal (with pianist Marguerite Campbell), Antal Dorati conducting the "Hollywood Symphony," and my father, pianist Jakob Gimpel. According to my father, the great harmonicist Larry Adler also participated, but his segments were evidently cut from the final version—quite possibly as a result of his brush with the HUAC. The movie appears to have been well received by critics both here and abroad, but my father never had occasion to see it: for reasons never ascertained, it disappeared from circulation shortly after its debut, and has not been seen or heard of since.
Until now, that is. In September of 2005, a DVD of "Concert Magic" (EuroArts / Naxos) surfaced in a carelessly edited version that seems to derive from an inferior German copy. The release is disturbing for several reasons. In the first place, little, if anything, appears to have been done to restore the sound quality, which is fairly poor throughout. There are also several noticeable dropouts, and the music is slightly out of synch. Second, the video is incomplete—at least one segment (Gimpel playing a Chopin mazurka in c# minor) apparently missing without explanation. Moreover, not only have the producers failed to offer any account of how and when they acquired their master copy, neither did they bother to provide any meaningful info on the supporting artists—as though no reasonable person could be interested in anyone besides Menuhin! (The slant is confirmed by the above-mentioned synch problem: it is less noticeable in the violin segments, so why bother to correct it?) What little history there is comes from the elderly Menuhin himself, fatuously interviewed as he watches the video and critiques his own youthful playing.
Of course, Paul Gordon, the original filmmaker, knew as well as anybody which "star" to hitch his wagon to. Menuhin was already a big name in 1946, whereas Gimpel, a wartime refugee from Nazi Vienna, was just beginning to attract notice in the US as a rising star with a recent Columbia album and several movie appearances. On the other hand, while Menuhin’s playing preponderates in minutes, the structure and staging of the movie show that the other artists were originally treated with a decorum that is painfully lacking from this DVD presentation. In his interview with Humphrey Burton, Menuhin comes across completely self-absorbed, saying scarcely anything about Beal, and not one word about Gimpel. That Menuhin would comport himself thus is incomprehensible unless he was railroaded by the usual marketing yahoos. Tully Potter’s passing remarks on Jakob Gimpel and Adolph Baller are preposterous. A serious critic does not write this way about internationally recognized artists.
As for the playing itself, though it is fascinating to watch Menuhin’s Buddha-like composure while his fingers and bow are burning up the strings, his sound does not benefit from the close miking, which reveals a slight impurity of intonation as well as a monochromatic timbre. Menuhin was a first-class technician, but his tone tended to be as cool as his outward demeanour. Perhaps the most musically satisfying is Wilhelmj’s violin arrangement of Schubert’s "Ave Maria" — the final number on the DVD. Menuhin is disarmingly correct when he characterizes his own playing of the Prelude from Bach’s E-Major Partita as "the performance of a good — no, an excellent student."
I wish I knew more about Eula Beal, a contralto with a beautiful, disciplined voice that must have had a velvety quality in a hall, but here comes through with an edge hardened by poor engineering, and a lack of color and dynamic variation.
Naturally, to me, the most interesting performance here is my father’s, but I can’t say that I am altogether thrilled. The Chopin e-minor waltz, E-major Etude, and Bb major Mazurka, though played with characteristic panache, seem a bit rushed by standards he espoused only a few years later. However, the F-major etudes (Chopin and Mendelssohn) are ravishing in delicacy and brilliance. Curiously, the high point here is not Chopin, but Liszt’s "Un Sospiro." It is pure magic: there is no other way to describe it.
"Concert Magic" ought to be reissued in a fully restored, properly re-integrated and researched edition. Had the producers of this DVD treated this historical and cultural treasure with the care it deserves instead of exploiting it for their own private agenda, they might have done a great service to a later, more enlightened age.
Copyright © 2006 by Peter Gimpel
Return to first page