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.