The Art of Nathan Milstein
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1868) [23:31]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, BWV 1041 (c. 1730) [14:11]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77 (1878) [37:21]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D Op 61 (1806) [40:56]
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)
Symphonie espagnole, Op. 24 (1874): Intermezzo omitted [24:22]
Nathan Milstein (violin)
Orchestre National de l’ORTF/Antál Doráti (Bruch and Bach), István Kertesz (Brahms), André Cluytens (Lalo)
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (Beethoven)
rec. July 1955 (Lalo), 5 October 1959 (Beethoven), 24 September 1961 (Bruch and Bach), 23 September 1963 (Brahms)
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1168 [76:13 + 66:37]

Securely pouched in Music & Arts’ catalogue is this valuable twofer originally released in 2005 in Aaron Snyder’s excellent transfers. The label has shown a discerning commitment to Nathan Milstein’s broadcast legacy, having already released a 4-CD box devoted to performances by the violinist given between 1942 and 1969 (see review) which included different live examples of his Brahms, Bruch and Beethoven.

So authoritative and consistent an artist as Milstein deserves nothing less than awed admiration and an injunction to go forth and listen to as many live performances as possible to augment his distinguished studio discography. But in the interests of critical survey it’s worth pointing a few salient features of these five concerto performances.

The Bruch and Bach are with Doráti from a single concert given in September 1961. The orchestra is the ORTF which accompanies in four concertos, whilst for the Beethoven that role falls to the Concertgebouw. The first recording of the Bruch I owned was Milstein’s Pittsburgh version with Steinberg on Capitol. It’s remained a firm favourite ever since. With Doráti his cantilena is richly but aristocratically refined, his slides copiously but eloquently deployed in the Vorspiel; noble pathos, in short. He’s not quite as reserved in the slow movement as he could be – if there is tape damage here, then Aaron Z. Snyder has expertly patched things – whilst the finale is vitalizing and full of committed romanticism; it’s a notch or two faster than was usually the case. A small amount of applause has been retained here and throughout the quintet of concerto performances.

The Bach is possibly superior to the two studio traversals, one self-directed, the other with Harry Blech. With Doráti’s firm hand on the tiller, tempi are almost identical to those Milstein himself took when directing an anonymous pick-up band in 1967, but there’s an extra quotient of buoyancy as well as communicative stillness in the slow movement.

Another Hungarian conductor, Kertesz, was on hand for the Brahms. Milstein, as ever, plays this up to tempo; he’s no 40-minute dawdler. Maybe the violin isn’t quite centred in the soundstage but one can certainly more than adequately catch his inimitable tonal and expressive qualities in full flight in this September 1963 concert. One feature of his performances was the use of his own cadenzas and here he plays a modification of his published first movement cadenza. He was never as rapier-incisive in this work as his older compatriot Heifetz, but he plays superbly on his own terms and is galvanizing in the finale. Kertesz is the most perceptive of accompanists here.

For the great test of a violinist, the Beethoven, he is partnered by Ormandy and the Concertgebouw in Montreux in October 1959. Again, one notes the consistency of tempo, digital precision, expressive generosity within certain limits, and added vitalization of the finale. Tempi here are standard for him, his portamenti finely judged and his own cadenzas equally so. There is some supremely lovely pathos in the finale, affectingly achieved through subtle deployment of slides but his playing remains elevated without ever becoming transcendent. There is always a human touch at work.

Like most of the Auer pupils he dispensed with the Intermezzo in Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. This practice went back to the very first account on disc in the early 1920s from Leo Strokoff – even though Stokoff told anyone who’d listen that he’d recorded it complete (perhaps he did but Columbia certainly never issued that movement). Milstein always played this with a super-abundance of responsive warmth and his piquancy and virtuosity alike are a tonic. Maybe it lacks the Gallic touch of Henry Merckel and certainly Thibaud (whose performance with Stokowski likewise dispensed with the Intermezzo) but it lacks for nothing in esprit and command.

As already noted those Snyder transfers are excellent. There’s an interesting and extensive booklet essay by Robert Maxwell (no, not that one) though his use of the phrase “Hegelian synthesis” in relation to Kreisler, Heifetz and Milstein had me reaching for the Epsom salts.

Jonathan Woolf

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