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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
see also Review
by Anne Ozorio