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Nathan Milstein (1904-1992)
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Violin Concerto in E minor Op 64
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Bruno Walter recorded May 1945
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)

Violin Concerto in G minor Op 26
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/john Barbirolli recorded April 1942
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Violin Concerto in D major Op 35
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Frederick Stock recorded March 1940
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110977 [79.10]

 

This trio of concerto recordings demonstrates why Milstein was held in such esteem. Naxos has already released his contemporaneous discs of the concertos by Glazunov and Dvořák, his first traversals of those two works, and now adds the Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Bruch G minor. They catch the violinist in his early to middle prime, technically impeccable and an aristocratic presence. The Mendelssohn with Bruno Walter has a real sense of discovered freshness to it and ardent lyricism as well. The sense of freedom is one aspect of Milstein and Walter’s translucent musicality here, as is the soloist’s bewitching cantilena. He is unaffected and memorable in the Andante and deeply noble and with his conductor’s bracing support brings crisp elegance to the finale; not too fast either.

He recorded the Bruch three times commercially and here he has the support of John Barbirolli and once again the Philharmonic-Symphony in tremendous form. Barbirolli opens powerfully and Milstein responds in kind; not over emoted and with vibrato perfectly scaled to the demands of the music. He is really quite withdrawn and introspective in the Adagio, powerfully so indeed, and Barbirolli brings out the horn harmonies in a way that seems to reveal them for the first time. There is romantic fervour but also passagework clarity and digital cleanliness in the finale. Especially memorable is the way Barbirolli prepares for Milstein’s passages of increased expressivity – a model of concerto accompaniment and creative collaboration – where the Russian’s vibrant statement of the theme is bathed in a wonderfully romanticised efflorescence.

The Tchaikovsky is accompanied by the Chicago Symphony and Frederick Stock and is the earliest of the three performances. He employs some of the standard Auer cuts, as was to be expected. He was always something of an aloof proponent of this work and one who established his command from the outset. It’s not an especially emotive reading though Milstein intensifies his vibrato at optimum moments of lyric ardour, his trill tightly focused. There is simplicity and repose in the slow movement without recourse to smeary intensities but the finale is another matter. Milstein really whips up a storm here; Allegro Vivacissimo indeed and an acceleration too far for me. But what playing and control.

Notes are by Tully Potter and transfers are by Mark Obert-Thorn. Only one problem for me and that’s the side joins; that leading from the first to the second movement of the Bruch has clearly caused problems and the join at 4.20 in the Adagio of the same work is poor. Sony has released the Mendelssohn, Biddulph the Bruch and the Tchaikovsky though they’re not, I believe, currently available.

Jonathan Woolf

Marc Obert-Thorn remarks

I must take issue with Jonathan Woolf's criticism of the side joins in the Milstein/ Barbirolli Bruch Concerto which I transferred for Naxos. I don't mind differing opinions with regard to my choices of equalization or filtering, as those are highly subjective matters; however, when my side joins are called "poor," well, as they say in the Westerns, "them's fightin' words!"

First, as I mentioned in my Producer's Note for the release, the transfers were all taken from LPs which had themselves been transferred from the lacquer master discs. American Columbia's practice at the time was to record directly to 33 1/3 rpm lacquers in four-minute segments, and then to dub the 78 rpm matrices from them. The technology available at the time made the 78s re-recorded in this fashion rather murky, and the sound was not helped by the shellac in use during this period.

The advantage came when the lacquers were dubbed to LP. The lacquers' wide frequency range, which could not be captured on 78s, could finally be heard. Thus, the LP transfers are the best way to hear these recordings. One side effect of using LPs as a basis for a CD transfer, however, is that one has to accept the editing that was done at the time. If a side join was botched on the LP, there's not much that can be done about it now.

Having said that, however, I disagree that the join between the first and the second movement of the Bruch is as problematic as Mr. Woolf claims. I just re-listened to a copy of my master tape (I don't have the finished CD yet), and had to replay it a few times, increasing the volume each time, to hear that there was a slight difference in the level of surface noise between Sides 2 and 3 of the lacquers as they were joined here.

There is more of a difference in the second join he notes, that in the middle of the slow movement (between Sides 3 and 4); but it is clear that this difference is caused by the lacquer of Side 3 getting slightly noisy toward the end in relation to the more quiet beginning of Side 4. It's more noticeable, granted, but I would hardly call it "poor" as Mr. Woolf does. I've heard some really poor joins on CD transfers, and this is not in the same league.

(For what it's worth, I *was* able to fix one between-side gap in the Mendelssohn Concerto on the same disc. The space left between the second and third movement seemed to me to be too long, and I used an overlap join to tighten it up a bit.)

I've noticed that of late, Mr. Woolf has been on a bit of a crusade with regard to this issue. In his review of my Acts I and II of "Die Walkure" with Melchior, Lehmann et al. published Monday, he singles out for criticism "one less than imperceptible side join" (out of a total of 33 side joins I made in the entire two-CD set) as well as "some muffled but audible crackle in one of the sides." This seems to me to be a bit nit-picky. I can only hope that Mr. Woolf will apply the same standards to all the historical reissues he reviews as he does to mine.

Yours,
Mark Obert-Thorn

 

 



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