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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

This documentary ends at its beginning, or begins at its end. Its culmination is a fine film of Nathan Milstein’s last concert, recorded in Stockholm in 1986. No-one knew it was to be his last concert, even though he was 82 years old at the time. It very nearly didn’t happen at all, because on the morning it was to be held, Milstein woke with a severe pain in the first finger of his left hand. Soon the injury was to force his retirement after a professional career that had spanned 73 years. Despite his pain, Milstein doesn’t compromise on quality because he knows how important this film will be for posterity. His fluency and inventive fingerings gave him the skill to adapt his fingerings and still play with astonishing virtuosity. Both the Kreutzer and the Chaconne are difficult works, yet Milstein’s interpretation is vivacious and fluid, as if freshly thought through. Even though he’d been playing them all his life, he was, in effect playing them anew - a spontaneous new approach.
This film is a kind of master-class, not merely in demonstrating technical skill, but because it goes further, exploring what made Milstein the man and musician he was. Milstein knew Auer, Glazunov, Piatigorsky, Rachmaninov and Heifetz. Russian music circles in those days were close and intimate. Horowitz invited him for tea one day at his home near what is now Chernobyl. Milstein stayed three years and they became lifelong friends. What’s fascinating is that his anecdotes are first person. His account of playing for a crowd of Soviet workers brims with sharp observation. Later there’s a priceless shot in which Milstein receives an award with Sammy Davis Jnr. Throughout the film are excerpts from music Milstein played or loved. There’s even a list so you can play them in full on your own.
Even more interesting are pithy insights he shares from decades of playing. For example, “Anyone who doesn’t know what invention is should stop playing”. The section where he has dinner with Pinchas Zuckerman was spontaneous, filmed without a script or rehearsals. Much had to be cut from the final film for space reasons – somewhere in the archive must lie further treasures. This unassuming “violinist’s violinist” as Zuckerman calls Milstein, exudes an air of “intense calm … and self-truth” because what he fundamentally believes in is the intrinsic value of music. As Zuckerman puts it, music can leave us “exhausted, exhilarated, uplifted and humble”.
As film, this set may be more conventional than the truly exceptional Sibelius film but that’s no demerit. The Sibelius film was a work of art in its own right, superbly poetic and profound. This is more direct. It’s interesting not just because it preserves Milstein’s technique for posterity, but because it also shows what it means to be a true musician.
Anne Ozorio

see also interview with Christopher Nupen




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