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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Memories of a Quiet Magician - Nathan Milstein in Portrait

On Nathan Milstein’s death, Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times wrote: “There can be no argument about Nathan Milstein's exalted place in the hierarchy of 20th-century violinists.” He was “probably the most nearly perfect violinist of his age”. Praise indeed. But what made him exceptional was his humanity. Christopher Nupen told Anne Ozorio what made Milstein a “magician” as well as a musician.

The film of Milstein’s recital in Stockholm in 1986 was a historic occasion because so little live footage exists of musicians from his era. After a career spanning 73 years, he was the last representative of the great Russian tradition. On the morning of the concert, Milstein woke and said he couldn’t play because the first finger on his left hand was excruciatingly painful. Nupen recounts: “the hall was booked, and sold out, the equipment was in place, even lights which had taken two days to install”. But Milstein spent the whole day working out alternative fingerings to ease the burden on that critical first finger. That might seem almost impossible, but Milstein had superlative technique. “He experimented with fingerings all the time”, says Nupen, “because he felt that if you always used the same fingerings, you’d lose spontaneity”. Often he’d play an opening in a certain way and when the recapitulation came, he’d play the same theme in the bar, but with different fingerings. It was a facility that he’d enjoyed polishing over the years until it came instinctively. On the film, he can be seen doing so. He doesn’t spare his painful finger entirely, because it’s important. But as Nupen says “His finger can be seen held up while the second, third and fourth fingers are busily playing away with tremendous virtuosity.” This is technique at an intuitive, artistic level, not mere experiment. The performance has a vivacity that belies the pain the performer must have undergone.

Milstein knew full well that what he was doing was being recorded for posterity. He was determined to create something special to help violinists of the future. As a young man his mother insisted that he keep his art pure from commercial pressure, so he was reluctant about publicity. For several years, Nupen had tea with Milstein every Sunday at his home in Chester Square. One day he said that a film of Paganini had been found in a film archive. “Why do you tell me such nonsense!” said Milstein. “Ah, but if the film existed, you’d be the first to want to see and hear what he did!” said Nupen. “It was a great moment of silence in my life. We both drank tea and I knew that he knew what I was up to”. Milstein realized then that film would be a unique way of preserving art for generations to come. “You win”, he smiled, and the documentary was made.

What Nupen loved about Milstein was his eagerness to keep learning and developing. Film-making is a complex process and there are many technical imperatives that have to be followed. Many artists might not appreciate this, but Milstein immediately understood. “There he was, at the age of 82, knowing hardly anything about television”, says Nupen, “but so willing to learn that he understood immediately what he needed to do to make the film work”. A lovely moment is captured on the film, when Milstein tunes his violin, but before he starts, you see him quietly looking down on the floor to see if he’s on the mark he’d been given to stand on to give the best angles for lighting. He knows the mark is there to make the film more accurate, so he moves into the right position and starts to play the Bach Chaconne. “I find this immensely touching and impressive”, says Nupen. “There is so much temptation for someone in his position to be demanding but Milstein had absolutely no egotistical pretensions. He was willing to learn what was completely alien to him, if it would help the ultimate result”. He was courteous to even the most junior member of the film crew, respecting their art as well as his own. “When you stop learning”, he used to say”, quotes Nupen, “That’s when the trouble starts”.

The new DVD (see review) shows the whole Stockholm concert, with full performances of the Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata and the Bach Chaconne from the D minor Partita BWV 1004. It’s a very moving performance, full of feeling, even if you don’t know the background. Nupen later made the documentary “Master of Invention” to frame the film of the concert with an in-depth study of Milstein’s life and the people he knew. As a boy he played Glazunov in the composer’s presence. He was an intimate friend of Vladimir Horowitz. The documentary shows him talking to Pinchas Zuckerman, who was so honoured to meet him that he took time out of his schedule to fly to the meeting. Milstein talks about the Russian Revolution, about meeting Rachmaninov and about many things he makes vivid because he’s talking from personal experience. It’s a unique document of a world long past.

After the film was made, Nupen took a copy to Milstein’s home for a preview. Milstein had invited only his wife, Therese, and Anthony Havelock-Allan, the great film producer who made among other films, Brief Encounter. When the film ended, Havelock-Allan said “Nathan, it has not increased my affection for you, because nothing could increase that, but it has increased my admiration”. Portraying Milstein as a human being enhances appreciation of what it takes to be an artist. Milstein used to say that modern musicians had it too easy and slipped too easily into what was expected of them. When he was young, he told Nupen, it was difficult enough to get hold of music, but in the process of figuring out how it could be played, they learned more deeply.

Milstein was about to celebrate his 90th birthday when he suddenly passed away. Nupen was on his way back to London to see him. To this day, he keeps Milstein’s blue tie. Like Schubert’s glasses, it is only an artefact, but a film maker understands that simple objects can express images greater than themselves. Only a small amount of the film Nupen and his team shot actually went into the films they produced. There are literally, thousands of hours of tape still in storage in the vaults. These reels are of historic importance. Evgeny Kissin has said that whoever preserves this collection will be remembered, and thanked, by posterity. Milstein believed that music had intrinsic value, which is why it was important to him that he passed what he knew on for others. Nupen’s films are a gift to the future – as are the unused archives which are a goldmine for artists, scholars and historians. Whoever helps preserve them will be doing a great service for art.

Anne Ozorio

 

 

 


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