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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D op.61
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Partita no.3 for solo violin: 1. Preludio
Nicolò PAGANINI (1782-1840)

24 Caprices for solo violin op.1: 11 in C major, 5 in A minor
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)

Suite populaire espagnole (arr. Pawel Kochánski): Jota, Asturiana
Ottokar NOVÁČEK (1866-1900)

Perpetuum mobile

Nathan Milstein (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult (Beethoven), Ernest Lush (piano) (Falla, NovŠček)

Recorded 29th September 1968 in the Royal Festival Hall (Beethoven), 9th June 1963 (Bach) and 22nd September 1957 (others) in the BBC Studios.
An interview with John Amis recorded on 7th November 1991 is also included.
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4151-2 [72:26]

 

When in my mid-teens I remember being taken up to London (my first visit to the Royal Festival Hall) to hear a concert by the London Philharmonic conducted by Boult. After a grandly built up "Meistersinger" Overture Milstein arrived to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto. The next day William Mann, in "The Times", commended Milsteinís "classical" interpretation, but also commended the organizers for having used Milsteinís Beethoven as a bait to ensure a full hall for a Symphony by Edmund Rubbra Ė no. 7, which followed the interval. Now that I find myself reviewing what is presumably the same performance more than three and a half decades later, I suppose I should be lamenting that the organizers in this case have not used Milsteinís Beethoven as a bait to introduce a new generation of fiddle fanciers to the beauties of Rubbra 7 (if the performance survives); however, Sir Adrian then set the symphony down for Lyrita and no doubt would have preferred us to hear the carefully prepared studio version.

It would be nice if I could say "Ah. itís just as I remember it", but perhaps the kind of interpretative maturity on offer here was not gauged to appeal to a teenager. I can only say that now it strikes me as one of the most perceptive performances I have ever heard, one of the best coordinated between violinist and conductor and one of the best balanced with the orchestra. From the outset one is struck by the firm enunciation of the timpani motto which is made to sound the germ from which the whole movement rises, both in its original form and later when it is used in eighth-notes. After some dubious ensemble (not typical of what follows) on the very first page the opening tutti is by turns peremptory and noble; a slowish first movement can be a tedious affair but here it is kept alive with countless distinguished touches of phrasing. It sets the tone ideally for an interpretation notable for its classical purity (interpretations of this work can basically be divided into classical or romantic according to whether or not they slow down to a crawl in the G minor episode: this one doesnít). Milsteinís tone does not radiate humanity as Menuhinís could, but his silvery purity has a feeling all of its own and he gives point to all the passage work without either parading his technique or hogging the limelight when the melodic interest is in the orchestra.

In the slow movement we may first admire Boultís ability to maintain musical movement at a slow tempo, and then Milsteinís true dialogue with the orchestra; you can feel him listening to the clarinet, for example, and adding his commentary. Hearing this, one is compelled to realise how often in this movement we hear the violinist doing his own thing and leaving the orchestra to do theirs; it all means so much more when played as here. Before starting the finale Milstein plays a cadenza that sets the new mood and then establishes a joyous rhythm which Boult catches exactly.

As to the excellent balance between violinist and orchestra, a live broadcast was hardly the place for knob-twiddling; Boult was famous for his orchestral balance and we can hear that a concerto performance conducted by him could be happily recorded as it was without any further intervention from the engineers. (Of course, the engineers might not have needed to intervene in either of Boultís studio recordings of this work, with Alfredo Campoli and Josef Suk, but we donít know this). Fascinatingly, the recorded talk with John Amis which closes the disc is illustrated with a snippet from the first movement of Milsteinís recording of this concerto with the Philharmonia under Leinsdorf; the tempo is slightly faster and the effect is so different that it would be fascinating to compare them fully.

The orchestral sound is extremely good; that of the violin is occasionally disfigured by a slight impurity (distortion) in the highest register. All the same, this is one of the most revealing versions in the catalogue. I promise you the occasional coughs are nothing to do with me, but my hands presumably contributed to the applause to be heard at the end.

The shorter pieces reveal Milsteinís sure technique and patrician artistry; they also show that he had not quite the charm of Kreisler nor the diabolical panache of Heifetz; you might say he was more musical than either, and surely we hear him at his best in classical concertos and sonatas. He gives the game away at the end of the interview, when he declares he loves playing Bach above all other composers; violinists who feel that way should not bother with things like NovŠčekís ďPerpetuum mobileĒ. His violin sounds fine even in the 1957 recordings, but Ernest Lush sounds as if he were playing in the next room.

Christopher Howell



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