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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Nathan Milstein – Concert Performances and Broadcasts, 1942-1969
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Violin Concerto No. 4 in D K218

Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Op. 26
Strasbourg Radio Symphony/Roger Albin, recorded 7 June 1969
Antonin DVOŘÁK

Violin Concerto in A Op. 53
Kölner Gürzenich Orchestra/Paul Kletzki, recorded Montreux 14 September 1956
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Violin Concerto in D Op. 77
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Pierre Monteux, recorded Amsterdam 12 October 1950

Violin Concerto Op. 28
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Bruno Walter, recorded New York 1 November 1942
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Violin Concerto No. 4 in D K218
Swiss-Italian Radio Orchestra/Carl Schuricht, recorded [? 1960s]
Violin Concerto No. 5 in A K219
Orchestra de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet, recorded 19 October 1960

Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Op. 19
Orchestra de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet, recorded 19 October 1960

Three Caprices from the 24 Caprices for solo Violin Op. 10, recorded in Germany unknown date
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Violin Concerto in D Op. 61
ORTF/Lorin Maazel, recorded 24 June 1959
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Partita No. 2 in D BWV 1004
From Columbia 78, recorded December 1935
Sonata No. 1 in G BWV 1001
From Columbia 78, recorded February 1936
MUSIC AND ARTS CD 972 [4 CDs 290.31]


This cache of live Milstein material demonstrates the uniformly high standard he maintained throughout his career. Almost unique in his digital and technical mastery at an advanced age, Milstein’s interpretative understanding was no less sovereign, no less remarkable. There are nearly five hours of concerti here – with the addition of the commercial 1935 Columbia set of the second Partita – and not one of the performances is without distinct fascination, albeit some fail to reach the exalted heights.

It was brave of Music and Arts to open the set with the 1969 Strasbourg Mozart K218. Not only is this significantly less appealing as a performance than the other K218 here – with Schuricht and the Swiss-Italian orchestra in an undated traversal – but it represents Milstein at his least appealing, at least to me. Albin was a decent conductor but there is a distinct lack of clarity in the inner voices and the acoustic is very swimmy. As for the soloist, he does take some time to warm up and there is a distinct and crucial, though never obvious, lack of precision between him and the orchestra – a lack of seamless articulacy. In the Adagio his familiar aristocratic poise is evident but the brisk tempo imparts an aloofness and rhythmic insistence that lacks gracious introspection. The Rondo finale is rather sedate and lacks sparkle. Coupled with this on the first disc, thankfully, are two specialities - I don’t count him as a Mozart specialist in any meaningful sense. The Bruch Concerto in G joins the commercial discs with Barbirolli (New York, 1942), the Pittsburgh/Steinberg of November 1954 and the Philharmonia/Barzin (1959). All the accustomed romantic affiliations are here – the daring portamenti in the opening phrases, the spot-on intonation, and the rapt intensity of the Adagio. Against this is the orchestra, once more the Strasbourg under Albin, which is inclined to be dogged and rather marmoreal in tuttis, the brash sound picture which exaggerates brass fortissimi and some signs of, in the end, a lack of ultimate opulence of tonal projection from Milstein. The disc is rounded out with another famous Milstein “hit”, the Dvořák, this time with Kletzki in 1956 – thus pretty much equidistant between the Minneapolis/Dorati of 1951 and the New Philharmonia/de Burgos of 1966 and the year before probably his most celebrated recording of it, again in Pittsburgh with Steinberg. He takes rather more lyrical time in the opening movement than in the recording the following year and the slow movement is, by contrast, slightly tighter, though no less pirouettingly joyful, than the 1957 disc. Added to which there is the frisson of a live performance and Milstein was always at his most communicatively commanding on stage. The little piquancies of colour, expressive pointing and portamento usage all mark this out as a delightful interpretation and the finale – though again hardly a model of orchestral discipline or recording cleanliness – is spirited and alive.

The second disc gives us the Brahms Concerto in a performance conducted by Pierre Monteux in Amsterdam in October 1950. It’s always been a matter of surprise that Milstein denigrated the work as "a failed imitation of the Beethoven concerto." Whatever his own low estimate may have been he wasn’t exactly averse to recording it – Steinberg, Fistoulari and Jochum all accompanied him on commercial discs. This Violin Concerto receives a splendidly masculine performance, with strong attacks and elegantly phrased, frequently powerful with some rhythmic give and take in the opening paragraphs and some occasionally smeary and smudgy Milstein in the cadenza, Milstein’s own. But how wonderfully and watchfully Monteux’s corrals his orchestral forces and maintains and sustains a flexible control over the score. There were surely few conductors who knew so expertly how to lighten Brahmsian texture as Monteux and his exceptional affinities are plainly on view here. The Goldmark by which he is best known is the Harry Blech disc of 1967 – live readings with others are known to exist; there’s certainly a Mitropoulos conducted New York performance from 1956 but this Bruno Walter-led 1942 New York traversal is the earliest of them – and indeed the earliest broadcast performance in this Music and Arts set. It’s pretty wonderful. There are some crackles on the acetate and sound constriction but only a pedant would complain when the rewards are so great in terms of violinist legerdemain. Chaste, rapt with a vibrato of medium speed and delicacy, Milstein’s opening movement is beautifully modulated. There isn’t the burnished, voluptuous intensity of Heifetz, who recorded only the Andante commercially, but Milstein brings his own glorious elegance to the work. In the Air he is indeed very beautiful, with expressive depth and obvious affection – though there were just one or two moments when I detected a slight feeling of artificiality in the phrasing, which might represent the ambiguity of Milstein’s response to the work, despite his mastery of it. His ambiguity was at least better than his outright hostility to the concertos of Sibelius and Elgar, amongst others. In the finale there’s real articulacy of bowing, intonation faultless in alt, frolicking and finesse in equal measure and though the portamenti are rather unvaried in phrasing, length and colour, that’s a relatively small matter. The cadenza is truly eloquent and virtuosic.

A splendidly full third disc gives us the far superior Schuricht/Mozart K218, K219 with Ansermet in 1960, the First Prokofiev Concerto (from the same Ansermet concert) and three Paganini caprices from an undated German radio performance. This is a bit of a hit and miss disc. As I’ve suggested Mozart, despite the existence of the self-conducted Philharmonia discs of K218 and K219 in 1964, and also of the Harry Blech conducted 1956 reading of K219, was not really a distinctive strength. In the end there was a lack of pliancy and a rhythmic insistence that was crucially disruptive to the naturalness of the line. That said K218 is a good deal tidier than the Albin performance; Milstein is also on far more relaxed and songful form in the Adagio where that aristocratic elegance is accompanied by some expressive affection. He is also more incisive in the Rondo finale, sharper, though his tempo is essentially unchanged. The Fifth Concerto with Ansermet finds Milstein on somewhat mannered form, in the first movement at least. The pervasive, but quick, portamenti here sound rather put on and the phrasing more than a little italicised. He receives strong though not unsullied support from the Suisse Romande. The Adagio is rather attractive and unusually expressive for Milstein’s Mozart and in the finale his portamanti sound far more natural as he imparts some colour and nuance into the line. All in all a performance that improves appreciably as it develops. He recorded both Prokofiev Concerti – but the First received two, in 1955 with Golschmann in St Louis and then in 1962 with the Philharmonia and Giulini. Perhaps his elegance and precision never quite probe much below the surface but this is certainly another attractive reading. The opening movement is incisive, with a full complement of rhythmic attacks, and good co-ordination between Milstein and Ansermet. If the second movement is not really craggy enough there is real eloquence and intensity in the finale.

The last CD takes us to the peak of the concerto literature with the Beethoven. Perhaps surprisingly he only recorded it twice commercially – Pittsburgh/Steinberg (1955) and Philharmonia/Leinsdorf (1961) – though other live performances must surely exist. Milstein decorates his line with piquant and very quick slides and imparts a silvery elegance to the first movement. Subtlety of rhythmic displacement is ever present, as are variational phrasing of repeated figures, preparation for the second subject with great care – and above all an aristocracy of conception, which as we always see with him is a prime component of Milstein’s art. As ever he plays his own cadenzas, which are most attractive. He and Maazel conjure up a sympathetically prayerful repose in the second movement – its rather seraphic innocence would not be sympathetic to a violinist of another stamp, let’s say, to take an extreme example, Huberman. Maazel doesn’t encourage – or the sound quality doesn’t give him – or both - a particularly impressive tutti in the Rondo finale and indeed this is a softer grained conclusion than one often finds. Milstein bows lightly, precisely, his vibrato beautifully modulated and capable of subtle variations of speed and pressure, as always. The commercial discs – the famous 1935 Columbia Partita, with the Adagio from the First Sonata made a year later – sound well enough, though maybe quieter copies could have been found.

The documentation is by the dean of American violin writers, the late Henry Roth, who writes with his accustomed acumen and occasional acerbity on all aspects of Milstein’s musicianship, documented through his commercial recordings. He doesn’t unfortunately comment on these particular performances but leaves one in no doubt as to the elevated place Milstein occupies in the history of twentieth-century music making. This set, so handsomely produced, documents that consistent elevation faithfully; the occasional, relative, limitations serve only to heighten one’s admiration for the immensity of Milstein’s great gifts.

Jonathan Woolf

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