Hymn of Jesus:
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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
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.
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