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Nathan Milstein in Portrait: Some Memories of a Quiet Magician
Master of Invention - Part 1 [54:01]
Master of Invention - Part 2 [59:43]
(includes concert performance of Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata and Bach Chaconne)
Nathan Milstein (violin)
Georges Pludermacher (piano)
rec. Stockholm, 17 July 1986
Cameraman: David Findlay
Editor: Peter Heelas
Writer and Director: Christopher Nupen.
NTSC. All regions. 2007



Many people will have seen the television documentary on Nathan Milstein written and directed by Christopher Nupen but this is an expanded version. Now in DVD format it forms a two-part portrait documentary with a concert film of what turned out to be Milstein’s last performance – a hand injury ended his career at the age of eighty-two. He’d been forced to change his fingers on the day of the recital – though as he says earlier in the film he was accustomed to change his fingering during a performance itself, let alone on the day. And this was no mere bravado. Such was the nature of his technical apparatus, even at this almost unparalleled age for a violinist, that he managed it with utter sang-froid. Sang-froid after all was a Milstein characteristic.


Both parts last just short of two hours in total; then there is the invaluable concert footage of a man who was otherwise seldom captured on film. The interviews were conducted at different times and we see Milstein playing his transcriptions – on piano – and reminiscing with Nupen whom he knew and liked. These reminiscences are considerably less tartly expressed than in the Solomon Volkov-compiled biography in which Milstein managed to eviscerate large swathes of the repertoire and some eminent composers and personages into the bargain. He always claimed to have learned little if anything from Auer, about whom he does talk in general terms. His period with Ysaÿe is touched on as well, including the well-honed anecdote of Ysaÿe’s first appearance, naked, after a sleep. Again the actual details are a little sketchy but the impression left behind, like that gargantuan violinist, is sizeable.


The introduction of an unscripted dinner with Pinchas Zuckerman focuses things on somewhat more technical matters though Milstein is impervious both to philosophical rhapsodising and specific detail. The most difficult piece he ever played asks Zuckerman? Ernst maybe? The Mephisto Waltz counters Milstein. Occasionally Zuckerman discomforts Milstein with his line of questioning though his joshing of the venerable violinist brings out genuine affection – and admiration from Milstein. Throughout the documentary element, concert footage is intelligently interspersed – relevant to the narrative thread, as it so often isn’t in films of this nature.


Things I’ll remember especially? Milstein watching Zuckerman like a hawk as the younger man plays some Mozart, pulling a face, and then saying “too sweet.” To which Zuckerman retorts like a flash – “Well I am Zucker-man.” Milstein’s face creases with delight. And the many scenes of Milstein trying out, finger by finger, his transcriptions on the piano. The album of stills that we see throughout is also touching; the reminiscences by Thérèse Milstein of Piatigorsky’s last days equally so. 


The Kreutzer and the Bach Chaconne make a fitting pair for the concert. The only possibly audible concession to old age lies in the occasional intonational problem in the former. Georges Pludermacher plays very adeptly but rather subserviently. The Chaconne is played with still magnificent architectural and tonal control.


Jonathan Woolf

see also Review by Anne Ozorio



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