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A TRIBUTE TO NINA MILKINA

(27 January 1919 – 29 November 2006)

 

1. Introduction

2. The Interview

3. A Brief Biography

4. Compositions

5. Recordings

6. Trivia

 

1. Introduction

Nina Milkina by Augustus John
Click for larger version

 In 2001 I was gathering materials on Harold Craxton for the entry in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I visited England that summer with a list of former Craxton pupils to contact, all well-known in the musical world but none more so than Nina Milkina. I was not terribly hopeful of an interview since I knew she was elderly and had retired from concert-giving through ill-health ten years earlier. However, she and her husband quickly set a date for my visit. The awestruck response of both my parents to my casual remark that I was going to see Nina Milkina is a measure of her prominence in the UK as a recitalist and broadcasting artist in the post-war years and her high reputation with older listeners. Sadly, few recordings have preserved her art and her name is probably barely known to younger music lovers.

 

2. The Interview

 I recall her house as set in a secluded, dignified street with a Georgian air, something of a calm oasis amid the chaos of London. But perhaps my memories are partly at fault, since the recording I have of the interview reveals traffic continually passing outside, including a fanfare of police sirens. I do not think I am mistaken in recalling a large, aristocratic, beautifully upholstered sitting-room. With a grand piano at one end it could easily have been set up as an intimate recital room for a select group of friends.

In spite of my premonitions, Nina Milkina actually appeared trim and alert. Many foreigners, even those who came to England while still children, retain their foreign accents and even seem to trade on them. Nina Milkina spoke in a beautifully clear upper-class English accent without the slightest hint that it was not the language of her earliest childhood. She was more than willing to search her memory for the information I was seeking, but she was emphatically not an old lady living amid her memories. She was still active as an adjudicator and took occasional pupils, as well as maintaining a general interest in musical life. In other words, she was concerned with the present, not the past, and her memories were more general impressions than detailed anecdotes. She modestly apologized for this – “I just wish I could be more concise and not as diffused in my memories” – and at one point remarked: “You’re telling me a lot of things … much more than I’m telling you, really”.

In reality she was a good deal more helpful than she apparently believed. I toyed with the idea of asking for another appointment, this time to ask her about herself. However, as she did not seem entirely at her ease being interviewed – and she didn’t like my Mini-Disc recorder! – I hesitated to bother her again. I felt perhaps I would do more to remind music lovers of her name by reviewing the select group of CDs which her husband was having privately released.

Listening again to my recording of the interview I find that a number of the things she said are also of interest for what they reveal about herself and I feel they are worth sharing. I am conscious that the bald written word may not convey the sense of deep appreciation and admiration with which she spoke of the several people mentioned, nor the delighted laugh which punctuated some of her memories. She came across as a very natural, modest and human person.

The principal subject was obviously Harold Craxton, who accepted her as a pupil when she was eight, and to whom she continued to go “till he was no longer with us”.

I was more or less adopted by Harold and Essie [Craxton’s wife] … for me he was THE teacher … wonderful … so dedicated … a very, very special person, a very dear person … I was well into my forties and I still went to him before a concert, and went on playing to him and he never ceased to be helpful.

However, she did add the proviso that he could be angered by “vulgar playing” and that

… he could also put you down if he thought you deserved it.

 Craxton was equally delighted with his young pupil. Nina Milkina showed me a letter he wrote to her mother in 1930 in which he declared “I cannot be too enthusiastic … one of the most musically gifted young artists I’ve ever heard … a very rare talent”.

 She also wished to stress that Harold Craxton was

 … a very fine, sensitive pianist himself … a superb accompanist … he adored lieder … his playing of old music was lovely.

 She also gave a tantalizing recollection of she and Harold in less serious moments:

 Sometimes, at reunions or parties, what he liked to do was, we used to improvise on two pianos … and we would play something à la Debussy or Mozart, or somebody would sing a little tune and we would make variations … one start and the other carry on like one thing … and that was lovely, it was most enjoyable … because he was also a composer and so was I. 

About Craxton’s compositions she was rather less sure:

 He was very modest about them. I think his family are pressing them now and I’m not sure that it’s wise. I think his arrangements of the old composers are beautiful, absolutely spot on, but his own compositions I don’t think he ever felt were something that he wanted to put in a showcase.

 Later, perhaps remembering that I had been the prime mover behind the CD of Craxton’s works which the family issued, she added that she didn’t want me to think

 … that I don’t put a value on Harold’s own compositions. I do, but not as much as I do on his arrangements. But that’s a personal feeling.

 Returning to Craxton as a teacher, I wondered what sort of instruction he gave to an eight-year-old girl.

 I think at that time he left me to my own resources.

 But even later, she was insistent that he required of her no rigorous programme of technical studies. This becomes interesting when we compare the testimonies of other Craxton pupils. Most of them were given strict technical training – the Chopin Studies with Cortot’s exercises were frequently used, even transposing them into different keys while maintaining the same fingering. One student was given exercises to do on the train. The fact that none of this was meted out to Nina Milkina tells us a good deal about both parties. Craxton was adept at seeing what each individual needed rather than handing out a standard, automatic method. And Nina Milkina was such a complete natural that he left well alone, acting more as advisor than teacher.

 Milkina also played to Tobias Matthay, who had earlier been Craxton’s own teacher. Notoriously, Matthay wrote theoretical works on piano technique which are so abstruse that it needed one of his pupils to write a pamphlet called “What Matthay Meant” in order to make any sense of them. Yet in practise he also seems to have recognized that Nina Milkina had it all from nature.

 I also went to Uncle Tobbs … he allowed me to do whatever I wanted, I was never told to do all this nonsense and everything … People remember him with great affection, he was a charming, very sweet old man. I enjoyed going to him because he sat back and allowed me to play … very seldom did he tell me to do this or that.

 Matthay also wrote a large quantity of rather complicated music, mainly for piano. What about that, I ventured to ask. Her reply was diplomatic.

 Well, I don’t know … I think once a friend of mine, a cellist, and I played a work of his which pleased him very much, but I can’t remember what it was like at all.

 At one stage it came out that Alexander Kelly, another Craxton pupil, was among my former teachers.

 He was a very fine musician … I knew him quite well because we used to adjudicate together, not only for the Craxtons but I think in Glasgow and other places where we used to be asked on the jury, and he was very sound and I must say we always agreed, which was nice.

 My query as to how people today would react to Craxton’s performances of Elizabethan virginals music played on the piano resulted in some of her own thoughts about the historically informed performance movement.

 One can argue terrifically … I enjoy it when they play on their old instruments and I think it’s got a lot to be said for it but I certainly don’t think that one has to play on a fortepiano, which I have also done, because I was asked when at the Edinburgh Festival they had this Mozart bicentenary thing and they asked me to do half the recital on a fortepiano of Mozart and half on a modern piano, and I didn’t find it difficult at all. And truly, I think too much is made out of this business … that you can only play these composers on a harpsichord or clavichord or fortepiano, and not on a pianoforte.

 Perhaps the nearest to a stinging remark in the whole interview was her reference to

 … some people … people who bang and everything … and it’s better if they play the clavichord in another room.

 This in turn led to some revealing considerations about sound:

 … an odd thing about sound … I’ve played a lot of chamber music and they said that when you’re playing trios and piano quartets and things, don’t have the lid right up, have it half open … We’ve tried it, and I found I could play more delicately and the sound was better with the lid right up. Well that again, you see, is contrary to what one would think.

 I’d gladly have heard more, but she evidently chided herself for straying off-topic:

 But I’m not talking about Harold, I’m talking about other things … What a bore for you!

 I assured her it wasn’t at all, but in any case I felt by now that she had told me what I wanted to know about Craxton and that I shouldn’t trouble her further. Rather self-deprecatingly, she asked:

 Have you been taking all this nonsense down?

 Oh yes, I assured her, I’d been taking notes and it was all on the Mini-Disc.

 Oh dear … well do wipe it, I wish I’d said no …

 And the recorded part of the interview ends with an amused laugh.

 With the official “business” over, her husband entered and served drinks. Freed from the threat of the Mini-Disc recorder, Nina Milkina sat on the arm of a sofa sipping a whisky and turned the tables on me, asking a few questions about myself and my background. I’m sure she said much else of interest, but I only remember a few snippets. Glazunov, with whom she had studied composition in Paris, came up and I tried to draw her on her own compositions. She gave another diplomatic reply … “Well, they were published …”. I have already mentioned in my review of her Chopin Mazurkas that her parents had taught her how to dance the mazurka while she was still in Russia, and that they had differentiated between how a man dances a mazurka and how a woman dances it. I also have a note that she was encouraged by Craxton to take up Debussy. It’s a pity we can’t hear any of Milkina’s Debussy, and evidently Craxton’s too, since she considered his “Cathédrale engloutie” the finest she had ever heard.

 I sent her a copy of the Craxton article when it was finished and received a card in which she thanked me, adding “Well done! I am now much better informed than I was before”.

 While it may be a pity that I did not seek a further interview, specifically about herself, the material I have will hopefully help conserve the memory of a charming person as well as a very fine, natural musician.

 

3. A brief biography [i]

 

Nina Milkina was born in Moscow on 27 January 1919 – the same birthday as Mozart. Her

Milkina at the Edinburgh Festival
Click for an enlarged version

father, Jacques, was an artist and a friend of Chagall, while her mother, Sophie, was a harpist. A portrait by Jacques of Nina as a child hung in her sitting-room, with other paintings of his, to the end of her life. It was reproduced on one of her LPs and can be seen below in the section dedicated to her recordings.

 As life got harder in post-Revolutionary Russia, it was clearly time to move. First out was Sophie, who in 1926 took Nina and her younger brother to London, where her grandfather and an aunt were already living. Here she was accepted as a pupil by Harold Craxton at the age of eight. However, permanent study with Craxton had to wait a while, for when her father left Russia he went to join the large Russian émigré community in Paris – “Even the taxi drivers were Russian princes then” [ii] , Nina recalled.

 The exact date of his move seems to be lost in the mists of time. However, Nina was in Paris by 1929, when the ten-year-old girl had the opportunity to play to Rachmaninov, even daring to offer his own G major Prelude. “Imagine the courage of a child! Afterwards he played some phrases of the Prelude to me and it was amazing to see those enormous hands producing such a telling pianissimo. I still have his very kind letter assessing my talent” [iii] . The meeting with Rachmaninov came about through the latter’s friendship with Leon Conus [iv] , Nina’s piano teacher in Paris and formerly a professor of the Moscow Conservatoire. “To Conus, finger technique was all-important – treating fingers individually to give the right flavour of sound to the music. ‘Taste the keys! Taste the keys!’, he used to say”. [v]  

 For composition lessons, she went first to Leonid Sabaniev and then – beginning in 1932, we see from her diary – to the elderly Alexander Glazunov. “He [Glazunov] called himself my grandfather and set out studies and contrapuntal puzzles which I had to resolve. After this serious business we played games – such as my transposing Bach fugues” [vi] . She made her public debut with the Lamoureux Orchestra at the age of eleven, and in this same year had her first composition published – a suite for piano called “My Toys” – by Boosey and Hawkes. The 1932 diary referred to is unfortunately the only one to survive from those years. It shows that by then she was shuttling back and forth between the two cities, with public appearances in both of them. On 25 May she was back in Paris and “pleased to see Daddy [vii] , but possibly she already felt England was her home since her return on 1 June elicited the comment “pleased to be back”. On 9 July she noted: “Played at the Craxtons. I love Mr. Craxton very much and wish I could study with him”. Two days earlier she had met the remarkable Helen Keller, the American activist who had been the first deaf-blind person to achieve graduation. “Shall never forget it. Was so moved that I kissed her. Wish I had the spirit of that woman”.

 In Paris once again on 12 October, she had a “Lesson with Marie Charpentier (God save me)”. Whoever Madame Charpentier was, Divine Providence did not spare her another dose ten days later. A more prominent teacher from whom she took a few lessons in 1932 was Marguerite Long, but this relationship was also less than successful. However, she did note on 21 October that “She was very, very pleased with me in front of the pupils and was so kind that I forgot to dislike her”. The entry for 14 December simply records Glazunov’s address, so this was presumably her first encounter with him.

 Not long after this she was permanently settled in London and achieved her desire to study with Craxton, as well as with Craxton’s own former teacher Tobias Matthay. She knew the latter by at least 1932, when she dedicated the first of her “Two Fairy Tales” to him. Some press cuttings conserved by Craxton describe her appearance in a concert by his students at the Aeolian Hall with the London Senior Orchestra under Ernest Read.

 Miss Nina Milkin [the form of her name used at this time], the soloist in the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Concerto, showed real ability in her command of steady rhythm and neat phrasing, while her agreeable tone was always carefully suited to the needs of the music – The Morning Post, 10 April 1935.    

 Nina Milkin … gave an exceptionally scholarly and dignified rendering of Beethoven’s C minor concerto. This girl of 16 obviously has a brilliant career before her – The Daily Telegraph, 10 April 1935.

 The personality of Nina Milkin, a young Russian pianist, the particular qualities of her expression, and an already polished, if as yet deliberate, way of playing, leave no doubt that something contributive and original may be expected of her – The Observer, 14 April 1935.

 Her career was thereafter in continual crescendo until the outbreak of the Second World War. This prevented a planned tour of the United States, but she toured the UK, playing in Dame Myra Hess’s National Gallery lunchtime concerts as well as at the Proms. She played at the last wartime Prom – under Sir Henry Wood – held at the Royal Albert Hall before the concerts were transferred to a safer venue. Her wartime broadcasts were often made at Aldenham during the night for the BBC World Service and she frequently performed for the troops, visiting Scapa Flow twice. After one such concert in Bournemouth she went to stay with friends in Dorset. They had invited a young military friend of theirs, Captain Alastair Sedgwick, to the concert but he had preferred to go to the pub. Nevertheless they met over breakfast and were married in 1943. This wartime idyll was sadly darkened by the horror of Nina’s Jewish parents’ deaths in the gas chambers.

Throughout the immediate post-war years Nina Milkina strengthened her reputation with frequent broadcasts and recital appearances. She recorded a complete cycle of the Mozart sonatas in 1946 for the fledgling BBC Third Programme and later set down the complete Haydn Piano Trios with the Oromonte trio. With Harry Blech and his London Mozart Players, formed in 1949, and previously with Alec Sherman and the New London Orchestra, she explored the lesser-known Mozart concertos. She later recalled Blech’s “patience and hard work” in setting up this orchestra, but also some lighter moments: Among many happy memories of those early days, I recall a concert at the Chelsea Town Hall. In the artists room before the concert, Harry had, inadvertently, sat on one of my cadenzas on which I had placed some chewing gum. When Harry got up to enter the platform he did so with my cadenza sticking to his coat tails. Luckily, amid our laughter, it was removed by an eagle-eyed attendant, before he took his bow [viii] .

 Possibly the eagle eyes were unnecessary. Older readers will recall that Harry Blech’s rear view was a very substantial one indeed.

 As mentioned in the interview, Nina Milkina contributed a recital to the Edinburgh Festival in Mozart’s bicentenary year in which she played half on a forte piano – almost unheard of in those days – and half on a normal piano. Her repertoire was wider than might be supposed – at the same Edinburgh Festival she collaborated with the actor Sebastian Shaw in a performance of Richard Strauss’s melodrama setting of Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden”. She was not a great advocate of contemporary music but had a long friendship with the “remarkable all-round musician” Robert Simpson, whose chamber music and symphonies she felt “both profound and beautifully crafted [ix] . Chamber music also had an important place – she collaborated with, among others, Dennis Brain, Leon Goossens, Evelyn Rothwell and Thea King, as well as being a member of the Oromonte Piano Trio. A photograph from the 1966 Edinburgh Festival shows that the other members of this trio were originally Perry Hart (violin) and Bruno Schreker (cello), but by 1967 the cellist was Kenneth Heath. For a time she lived in a flat above that of Sir Clifford Curzon – “Upstairs, me; downstairs, Clifford. It should have been the other way round” [x] . She played the Mozart Two-Piano Concerto K.365 with Curzon on 7 May 1942 [xi] and again at the Mozart Birthday Concert in the Royal Festival Hall on 27 January 1979. The Mozart Birthday Concerts have long been annual events, organized until 2004 by Alastair Sedgwick, when he handed over to Rosemary Pickering of the Young Concert Artists’ Trust. The 1979 concert also included the Two-Piano Sonata K.448. Her husband recalls that it was fascinating to watch them rehearsing back in 1943, Nina so instinctive while Curzon was meticulously insistent on working out every tiniest detail. And yet they had no difficulty in finding common ground at the end of it. 

Nina Milkina with Sir Clifford Curzon and Sir John Eliot Gardiner at the reception following the Mozart Birthday Concert at the RFH on 27 January 1979

The 1979 concert was conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. Harold Rosenthal remarked of the Sonata that “They seemed to be creating the music together as if the notes were scarcely dry on the page. It was sheer magic”. Of the Concerto, he found that “their evident enjoyment communicated itself not only to the audience, but also to the orchestra [xii] . Peter Stadlen, too, found the Sonata performance “unforgettable” and noted “The pianists’ telepathic ensemble of heart and mind” in the Concerto [xiii] . The BBC had wished to broadcast the event but the ever-anxious Curzon did not allow this, saying it was so many years since he had last played with Milkina and he was not sure how it would go. In the event he was delighted and declared he would make amends, but his death in 1982 intervened before this was possible [xiv] . Nina Milkina played Mozart’s tragic B minor Adagio at Curzon’s funeral.  

 

 

With the birth of her children in 1958 and 1960 her appearances became a little rarer and she was perhaps less in the public eye, though her recitals were eagerly sought after by musicians and connoisseurs. At the end of the 1980s she was fighting cancer. She won the battle but found that her back would no longer stand the strain of the long hours at the piano necessary to maintain the standard she demanded of herself. She announced her retirement in 1991. It is perhaps symptomatic of why she was so much loved yet less universally known than she deserved, that her final concert was not in one of the world’s great capitals but at the Joyce Grenfell Centre of Claremont Fan School, Esher, on 10 March 1991. “An Evening with Nina Milkina” was organized by the Esher & District Christian Aid Committee and raised over £1,000 for Christian Aid. She offered a typical programme of Scarlatti, Mozart and Chopin Mazurkas, but her final offering to the public, as an encore, was Rachmaninov’s transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee”.

 She remained active as an adjudicator. She never taught on a regular basis or at an academic institution, but several pianists sought her advice. Craig Sheppard’s account of his session with her on Bach may be read on this site and another was Murray Perahia. A late protégé was Leon McCawley. She died on November 29th 2006 at the age of 87.

 Nina Milkina was a natural artist and a natural performer. Her lack of sheer ego put her at a disadvantage compared with certain of her pushier contemporaries. Her career remained UK-based and her post-war appearances abroad were few. In the 1950s she appeared in Holland (the Hague and Amsterdam) and Switzerland (Geneva). In 1958 she accompanied Harry Blech and the London Mozart Players on a tour of Italy. A 1969 solo tour took her to Beirut, Kuwait, Calcutta, Poona and Delhi, while another in 1973 covered Cyprus, Nicosia, Ankara and Istanbul. Her long-delayed American debut took place on 6 June 1972, when she played Mozart K.467 with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. She returned the following year for recitals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the De Cordova Museum; these appearances represent the total of her American career. If the tour planned in 1939 had come off her post-war profile might have been very different. Yet this may have worried her less than it did her admirers. When her husband wrote to me, shortly after her death, “I think you know what a wonderfully modest person she was, which in some ways restricted the development of her career, but among the knowledgeable few she was revered”, this was not the hyperbole of a grieving widower but the literal truth.

 4. Compositions 

Nina Milkina’s pre-war recitals often included a composition or two of her own, several of which were published. “If I remember correctly I was paid five guineas for each masterpiece and was then given a few sixpences to spend as I liked in Woolworth’s” [xv] . A 1936 review referred to some “agreeable and daintily written sketches of her own composition” [xvi] . Apart from "My Toys", mentioned above, "Two Fairy Tales" and "Fête du Village" were also published in 1932. "Valse Caprice" and "Marche Burlesque" followed in 1934; the latter acquired some popularity. A slightly later "Sonatine" was premièred towards the end of the 1930s.

 I have been able to examine two of these publications. The “Two Fairy Tales” were dedicated respectively to Tobias Matthay and Leon Conus. Though they are written in a post-romantic style which would not have caused to much offence to the elderly Glazunov, there is nothing at all childish or simplistic about the music. What may come as a surprise is the extreme sophistication of their atmospheres, delicately-hued, slightly melancholy fin de siècle soundscapes. The first is the more varied and ultimately the more rewarding. The second has a haunting principal idea but depends on it too much. The secondary material is brief and less striking so at the end the piece never seems to have got away from its beginning.

 The “Marche-Burlesque” was written in 1933 and published in 1934. It was dedicated to Henri Busser. Here the musical language is much more up-to-date. It is a sizzling little piece that compares favourably with Prokofief’s early opus numbers of piano miniatures.

 In an age which delights in exploring musical byways, at least on disc, such pieces as these could well be slotted into a programme of Russian miniatures. However, it would be regrettable if anyone, unaware of Milkina’s achievements as a pianist, should suppose her compositions to be central to her life’s work.  

 Nina Milkina ceased to compose after the outbreak of the Second World War, but later she provided cadenzas for a number of Mozart concertos. Some were originally intended for Myra Hess and Clifford Curzon and are played today by Leon McCawley.

 5. Recordings

 The few recordings available on CD have been reviewed by me for MusicWeb. They are available through Nina Milkina’s son Alex Sedgwick at alex@sedgwickphoto.com and are:

Chopin: 51 Mazurkas

Chopin: 24 Preludes, Nocturne in C sharp minor

 Nina Milkina at the Wigmore Hall

 Craig Sheppard also discusses these recordings in the article mentioned above.

 All the above recordings come from a select group made for Pye from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s. These now belong to EMI and have been licensed for issue on the Unterschrift label. Below is a full list of the Pye issues. Those in red are included in the CD releases. Some contemporary reviews are quoted, including, for objectivity’s sake, a few dissenting comments.

 BRAHMS: Piano Trio in C major, op. 87
HAYDN: Piano Trio no. 4 in E major
Oromonte Piano Trio – Nina Milkina (piano), Perry Hart (violin), Kenneth Heath (cello)
Pye TPLS 13018 (LP)

 We find this performance of the Brahms slightly lacking in weight and authority, but we are captivated by the delightful performance of Haydn’s gentle E major trio and especially by the piano playing of Nina Milkina – EMG Monthly Letter 4/1969. 

HAYDN: Sonata in E minor, Pieces for Mechanical Clocks
MOZART: Sonata in A minor K.310, Variations on an Allegretto K.54
Pye TPLS 13021 (LP)

The cover of TPLS 13021 reproduces a portrait of the young Nina Milkina by her father

 



Highly sensitive playing …. In the Mozart A minor Miss Milkina shows a striking blend of strength and sensitivity – this is a difficult sonata to get right, and she succeeds admirably. The Haydn Sonata, too, is beautifully played and the two fill-ups are very charming. – EMG Monthly Letter 5/1969.

 Miss Milkina conveys much, if not quite all, of the first movement’s [of the Mozart sonata] tension. She ‘scores’ the slow movement with imaginative contrasts of tone and colour, and takes the finale as a really swift presto. All the same, I think Haydn’s E minor Sonata suits her light and nimble fingers still better… She plays it with great delicacy, clarity and control. I also enjoyed her glistening neatness in the slighter pieces on the record … – Joan Chissell, Gramophone 7/1969.

 CHOPIN: 51 Mazurkas

Pye TPLS 13038 (3 LPs)

 Nina Milkina is such a musical and accomplished pianist that it is strange she has had so little opportunity to make records. These performances of the complete mazurkas are a real pleasure to listen to; they are highly idiomatic in style (the playing is subtly rubato throughout) yet beautifully poised with a firm line and a clear rhythm. – EMG Monthly Letter 1/1971.

 It must be said at once that Nina Milkina’s attractively-boxed set … is a serious proposition. Hers, naturally, is a less detached approach than Rubinstein’s; … after a lifetime of Chopin playing he views even this music as it were from above, so the significance of each phrase is distilled to its essence. Miss Milkina’s perspective is shorter, the effect being of greater immediacy; that is, although her readings are polished it is almost as if she were still discovering the music, not recollecting it in tranquillity.

And she is independent. She takes op. 6 No. 4 and Op. 7 No. 2 quite slowly, and they work that way; nor is the over-familiar Op. 7 No. 1 dashed through in the usual manner …. One expected the widest fallings-short from Rubinstein’s unique standard to come in the greatest Mazurkas, such as the glorious Op. 24 No. 4, but it does not work out like that. Indeed, the more ambitious pieces bring out something  like the best in Miss Milkina … [She gives] much satisfaction through Op. 41 and 59, first and last of the consistently great sets – Max Harrison, Gramophone 1/1971. 

 

NINA MILKINA AT THE WIGMORE HALL

BACH: French Overture
SCARLATTI: 6 Sonatas
HAYDN:
Sonata in B minor
MOZART: Minuet in D K.355, Sonata in D K.575
CHOPIN: 3 Ecossaises, Nocturne in C sharp minor
SCRIABIN: 3 Etudes
RACHMANINOV: Prelude op.32/5
PROKOFIEF: Suggestion diabolique op.4/4

Pye TPLS 13050-1 (2 LPs)

 [Note that the later CD compilation with the same title is not a direct transfer of the LP set].

 … the first movement of the Bach … is lithe, resilient, most enjoyable in its fire and clarity. … the Sarabande is particularly beautiful.

The[Scarlatti]  performances, again, have elegance and vivacity, not an easy combination to bring off. Haydn’s sonata, too, is so well-judged as to sound completely natural – there are no exaggerations and yet this is very expressive playing. Predictably, the Mozart works fare best of all, for Miss Milkina’s interpretations of this composer have long been celebrated, and rightly so. …

… The Nocturne is very satisfying, played with much feeling and a lovely tone… The first of the Scriabin Etudes, no. 10, is not really fast enough and the Prokofief, also, while it receives a worthy performance, needs more virtuosity as it should appear wilder and more abandoned. Miss Milkina is most successful in the well-known B flat minor Scriabin, however, its beautiful, many-noted textures being kept supple and clear, as are those of the Rachmaninov piece. – Max Harrison, Gramophone 5/1973.    

 

SCARLATTI: 12 Sonatas

Pye TPLS 13057 (LP)

 … a particularly astute selection, poetic and vivacious by turn … Her touch is very even yet not in the least machine-like, dynamics … are employed with intelligence … the phrasing is fluid yet precise … There is, in fact, much to delight here – Max Harrison, Gramophone 12/1973.

 Miss Milkina is a sensitive player, but her romantic approach tends to rob the music of its sparkle and clarity. … However, anyone who dislikes the harpsichord but wants Scarlatti on record will find here a well chosen programme played with conviction. – EMG Monthly Letter 11/1973.

 

MOZART: Concertos K.271/467
with Orchestra of St. John’s Smith Square/John Lubbock

Pye PCNH1 (LP)

 Miss Milkina’s performances are … very perceptive and intelligent … and both performances have lively and keen orchestral playing. – EMG Monthly Letter 6/1976.

 

To these tapings may be added the Chopin Preludes which were not approved for release at the time, as explained in my review of the CD issue. As can be seen, the Pye material as yet unreleased on CD would barely fill a further three discs. Also on Pye, a 10” LP from 1958 has her collaborating with Sebastian Shaw, Donald Swann and Marjorie Westbury in “London Sketches”. During the 1960s she set down the Brahms Clarinet Sonatas with Thea King for Summit, a disc sponsored by the clarinettist herself, while Westminster issued her in four sonatas by C.P.E. Bach and twelve by Scarlatti (XWN 18853 and 18697 respectively). A 1973 documentary film “The Great Composers: W.A. Mozart” (IFB Video) concludes with Nina Milkina playing part of K.271 accompanied by Harry Blech and the London Mozart Players.

 A late venture by ASV resulted in a single CD of Mozart:

MOZART: Sonatas K.330/K.576, Rondo in A minor K.511, Adagio in B minor K.540

rec. Conway Hall, London, August 1987

ASV CD DCA 648 (CD: 55:44)

 

It is a pity that such a small recorded repertoire should contain a major duplication – K.576. However, it is instructive to compare the two. The later recording is much more reverberant and the two-part contrapuntal exchanges in the first movement have a miraculous clarity in the earlier version which is not matched here. In the Wigmore Hall Milkina almost seems to be playing a fortepiano while in the Conway Hall we definitely hear a concert grand in an empty concert room. The performance is nevertheless beautifully poised.

 If the Pye recording seems preferable in the first movement, in the second Nina Milkina eases herself into the Conway Hall acoustic to give a more expansive, romantically lit interpretation which finds a new depth in the movement. It is about half a minute longer. In the finale, however, she is quicker than before and has an irresistible lilt. The D minor section arrives as though she has discovered it in that moment and she proves over the following page to be one of the few who could play Mozart with real passion without going beyond the confines of the style. This is a reminder that, while Milkina’s listeners were always guaranteed refined execution and natural, sympathetic musicianship, she could sometimes reward them with true inspiration.

 With no comparisons to make, I was not unduly worried about the reverberation elsewhere on the record, indeed I enjoyed the full, rich sound. I have of late been listening a lot to Ingrid Haebler’s late Mozart cycle. I continue to enjoy her Olympian sublimity. Those who find it a little chilly, or those who, like me, would not always want to hear the music played the same way, will find that Milkina offers a much more immediate vivacity in K.330. Each phrase leaps to life in an almost operatic way. I just wish the comparison between the two were not restricted to so few works.

 The A minor Rondo and the B minor Adagio are two Mozart pieces I dread. I know they are supposed to be among his deepest but all too often they seem to last for ever.

 Not when Nina Milkina plays them. It is difficult to define the secret for it is not as if she really does anything with the music. The tolling-bell bass notes at the beginning of the Rondo and the occasional slight suggestion of separated hands is the nearest she comes to idiosyncrasy. In the contrasting material her dynamic range is actually rather bold and she always leads the ear onwards. The fact that she was not a “big” pianist – in the sense that one cannot imagine her storming through Rachmaninov 3 with all guns blazing – perhaps enabled her to give her all in Mozart where other pianists felt obliged to hold back. The Adagio similarly makes its point with deep feeling yet no special pleading. The final resolution to the major key is extraordinarily moving. The whole colour of the music changes to evoke, not a happy ending, but a vision of Schubertian unattainable beauty.

 This is one of the finest Mozart records I know and, in the absence of a reissue, anyone who sees it around should snap it up.

 Nina Milkina was also a frequent broadcaster. Alas, the BBC do not systematically conserve their tapes and just two are listed in the catalogue of the British National Sound Archive. From 3 October 1983 there is a St. John’s Smith Square concert in which six Scarlatti sonatas are followed by Beethoven’s Quintet op.16 with a vintage team consisting of Neil Black, Thea King, Anthony Halstead and Graham Sheen. And from 7 August 1987 is a performance of the Mozart K.387 Concerto with string quartet accompaniment, played by the Delmé Quartet. To these may be added a 1961 performance of Mozart K.595 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson, which entered the archive as part of the Gibson Collection. The sound is said to be poor.

 A letter from Andrew Lyle of the BBC to Alastair Sedgwick [xvii] shows that the BBC themselves hold a little more, or did in 2000. Most notable are eight of the twelve programmes dedicated to the Haydn Piano Trios (1967-8), a total of sixteen Trios played by the Oromonte Piano Trio. Also listed are four out of six programmes dedicated to the Chopin Mazurkas (1975) and a little more Mozart and Scarlatti.

 It is possible that Milkina’s many admirers hold tapings of her broadcasts and it would be interesting to have information about any surviving recordings. Various off-the-air reel-to-reel tapes are held by the family but it has not been possible for the moment to catalogue or assess them. Her official recorded legacy is just about enough to provide future listeners with a measure of her artistry, but it decidedly whets the appetite for more.

6. Trivia

Nina Milkina was once "paid to play badly". In Alexander Korda's 1948 film of Anna Karenina, starring Vivien Leigh, she was cast as a "ham-fisted pianist": "I had to try a Chopin mazurka, then one of his nocturnes, then give it up as a bad job" [xviii]



[i]   Sources consulted: Jessica Duchen: “Beacon of Light”, interview/article in International Piano of Sep/Oct 2002,  pp. 8-13; obituaries in the Guardian (5.12.2006), the Scotsman (7.12.2006), The Times (7.12.2006), the Daily Telegraph (12.12.2006); biographies in her CD releases. As these sources show certain discrepancies the article has been checked with Alastair Sedgwick, Nina Milkina’s widower, particularly as regards pre-war chronology. I have also been able to see the hand-written notes prepared by Milkina as an aide-memoire for her interview with Duchen. All photographs have been provided by Alastair Sedgwick and are used with his permission.

[ii]   Jessica Duchen: ibid

[iii] J. Duchen: ibid

[iv] Stated by Duchen to be “Lev Eduardovitch Conus – brother of the composer”, but Milkina clearly wrote “Leon” in her aide-memoire.

[v] J. Duchen: ibid

[vi] J. Duchen: ibid

[vii] All diary entries made available by Alastair Sedgwick. The next diary to be conserved after 1932 was that for 1942 and it is merely a list of concert dates.

[viii] Nina Milkina: tribute written for the 50th Anniversary Concert of the London Mozart Players, 3.5.1999.

[ix] J. Duchen: ibid, supplemented from Milkina’s handwritten notes for the interview.

[x] J. Duchen: ibid

[xi] This is stated several times in print, on the occasion of their later performance in 1979, to have been in 1943, but Milkina’s entry in her 1942 diary can hardly be wrong.

[xii] Jewish Chronicle, 3.2.1979

[xiii] Daily Telegraph, 29.1.1979

[xiv] Information supplied by Alastair Sedgwick.

[xv] J. Duchen: ibid

[xvi] Quoted in The Times obituary, 7 December 2007, without specific citation.

[xvii] Letter dated 29 February 2000.

[xviii] Scottish Daily Mail: undated press cutting provided by Alastair Sedgwick.




 

 


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