> Nathan Milstein – Artur Balsam. The 1953 Library of Congress Recital [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Nathan Milstein – Artur Balsam. The 1953 Library of Congress Recital
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Sonata No 5 in F major Spring Sonata
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Partita in D Minor BWV 1004
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Sonata No 3 in D Minor Op 108
Nathan Milstein, violin
Artur Balsam, piano
Recorded at the Coolidge Auditorium of The Library of Congress March 13 1953
BRIDGE 9066 [67’22]


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This is a companion to the earlier 1946 Milstein-Blatt Library of Congress recital on Bridge 9064. Though recorded seven years later the sound is in some ways poorer than that earlier recital, even though the 1946 acetates were afflicted with hum and scuffs. In 1953 the sound is rather recessed and cramped with Milstein’s tone given an acerbic edge and Balsam emerging, probably unfairly, clangourous. Despite this however admirers will find little to complain of, given the high level of interpretative skill on view, the increased equality of relationship in the partnership between violinist and pianist and the satisfactory programme. This differs markedly from the Old School 1946 recital, a heady mix of Baroque-Romantic-Sweetmeat confection, with the piano-accompanied Mendelssohn Concerto taking centre stage. By 1953 Milstein was playing a solid trio of masterworks with its central panel one of his great strengths, a Bach Partita, the D Minor with the concluding Chaconne.

As adjuncts to his discography this trio makes compelling listening. He had recorded the Spring with Balsam for RCA three years earlier and was to record it again a few years later, in 1958, with Rudolf Firkušný for Capitol/EMI. Meanwhile other performances have emerged – a live 1957 performance again with Balsam, with whom he had earlier made an unpublished 1947 attempt for Columbia. This Library of Congress performance opens in surprisingly sunny fashion before sweeping and perhaps a trifle-overheated passagework drives the first movement onwards. The adagio has, as excellent sleeve annotator Harris Goldsmith notes, a flexible momentum whilst being in no sense indifferent to the lyrical beauty of the movement though whether the duo’s ensemble in the Scherzo justifies the words "awe-inspiring" is perhaps a matter of taste. The vigorous engagement of the finale can’t though be gainsaid; Milstein’s almost exact contemporary Balsam living up to his reputation as a sterling chamber collaborator.

The Brahms D Minor is famous from Milstein’s 1950 recording for RCA Victor with his long-time colleague and friend Horowitz. Horowitz was a maddeningly bad Brahms player and this was an inconsistent performance surpassed on balance by this later live recording. I still find points of contention here. Harris Goldsmith admires Balsam’s pianism – his use of the sustaining pedal, expansive phrasing and idiomatic sonorities – but I find him less convincing. His rubato is to my ears disruptive, the stresses and caesurae he imposes impeding to the flow of the first movement in particular, allied to which Milstein’s propulsive tendencies are sometimes overwhelming. The gains of a live performance are sometimes counterbalanced here by structural flaws - it’s true that in passagework Balsam is more obviously pliant than Milstein but I find the rhythmic liabilities too great. There’s certainly nothing analogous to the playing of Szigeti and Petri in their recording of this work, one of the greatest ever committed to disc. There are some glorious moments in the slow movement – and one or two expressively gulped notes from the violinist – but the phrasing never quite seems as seamlessly right as it does with Szigeti. The finale is bold and slashing with both Balsam and Milstein on truly combustible form, the performance taking off – a little late for me – with real drama. Nevertheless despite the caveats this is a must-hear performance for Milstein admirers who will find much to savour.

The Bach is a performance on a higher plane altogether. Three commercial recordings exist – two from integral sets of the complete Partitas and Sonatas in the 1950s and 1970s; the other was a pre-war Columbia recording. Here is Milstein at his 1950s best. Technique is allied to expressive nuance harnessed to control and intellectual insight. In the Sarabande for example the sense of motion is controlled by the most subtle and flexible of rhythms, his performance energized still further by the exigencies of a live performance. In the Chaconne he is sonorous if with very slightly intrusively sentimentalized tone on the lower strings. The recording still makes his E string sound acerbic and rather tart but the pauses, fluctuations and expressive devices he utilizes are all deeply impressive. Clarity of passagework and aristocracy of conception inform his every move; there is not the triumphalist conclusion at the end, rather a steady, almost abstract exploration of the curve and return of the line. If the conclusion is not overwhelming – and in the crude sense it is not – then it is still one of majestic understanding and control. Not only was he probably the best of the putative Auer pupils as a chamber player, but also certainly the greatest Bach player of them all.

Strongly recommended then, distant and abrasive recording notwithstanding. Along with the earlier Bridge recital, from 1946, Milstein is caught in his mature glory, inconsistent maybe in places, but always unignorable and a beacon of sanity, insight and command.

Jonathan Woolf

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