These three recordings were made for RCA
Victor in 1950 and 1951, a brief interregnum between Milstein’s
Columbia and Capitol years. They pair him with two long-standing
colleagues, Piatigorsky and Horowitz, with whom he had many
years earlier formed a trio. They also pair Milstein with the
loyal Artur Balsam and the Philadelphia, under its nom de plume,
directed by Reiner.
Whatever Milstein may have written in his
memoirs – liberally drawn on by Tully Potter in his notes –
one would never know from his recordings for which works he
harboured reservations, resentment or indeed contempt. The memoirs
are, it’s true, sometimes remarkable for the disdain in which
he held a swathe of concertos and sonatas. He was not committed
to all the Beethoven sonatas and was not one to commit full
cycles to disc. He evinced interest in only four of them and
here we have the Spring with Balsam. A later stereo recording
exists of his performance. But fortunately a live Library of
Congress performance given by the two men in 1953 – three years
later than this studio effort – has been issued on Bridge 9066.
It attests to the security of the conception that three movements
are almost identical, almost to the second, but that the slow
movement, as one might guess, is somewhat more leisurely and
relaxed in the Library of Congress – 10:08 to 9:08. The performance
generally is a fine one though the caveat is the recording.
It was recorded somewhat too “close to the bone” so that accompanying
violin figures are elevated to overt statements in their own
right, which does little for matters of balance.
Milstein’s phrasing is – one hates to use
the word, so much a cliché has it become of his musicianship
– aristocratic. He deigns to indulge flashy entries or to over-indulge.
Even though the Adagio is quicker than the Library of Congress
performance there’s no sense of haste or impatience. Balsam’s
pointing is full of incident and deft control. The finale’s
wit is, for my taste, rather too reserved but it’s part of a
broad ranging conception.
The Brahms sonata pairs Milstein with Horowitz;
this was their only collaboration on disc and this is Milstein’s
sole commercial recording of the work. The outlines of this
are so similar to the Balsam-Library of Congress live reading
on the same Bridge disc that housed the Spring that Milstein
must surely have strongly dictated the terms of the performance.
For those who are interested in such things the differences
are a matter of a few seconds. The ensemble between the two
men is excellent. Horowitz was an unconvincing interpreter of
the concertos, regularly browbeaten by Toscanini into performances
that were aligned exclusively to the conductor’s concept. But
with Milstein we find a rather different story – superb chording,
animation in pedalling, dynamism and verve. Milstein’s subtle
vibrato usage is at its height in the slow movement.
The Double Concerto saw Milstein teamed with
Piatigorsky, who clearly didn’t share the violinist’s reservations
about the work – though to be fair Milstein is hardly the first
or last fiddle player to express these kinds of views. The recording
has some deficiencies – horns are sometimes strangely “blurry”
– but none regarding the performances. Reiner is up to his accustomed
level of interpretative insight and Piatigorsky demonstrates
his credentials as a Brahmsian. Ensemble work is first class.
For the transfers Producer Mark Obert-Thorn
has used a 45-rpm set for the Spring and commercial RCA
LPs for the two Brahms. They sound extremely well – full of
body and range.