S0261. NATHAN MILSTEIN: Sonatas & Partitas for Violin Unaccompanied (Bach). 2-DG 457 701, recorded 1973. Long out-of-print, Final Copy! - 028945770123
"There can be no argument about Nathan Milstein's exalted place in the hierarchy of 20th-century violinists. To many, Mr. Milstein - the last surviving pupil of Leopold Auer, considered the 20th century's pre-eminent teacher of violin - was the greatest of all exponents of the 19th-century violin repertory, though he played music from Bach to Prokofiev and had achieved a special affinity for the Bach unaccompanied sonatas.
From the beginning, his playing was constantly described as ‘flawless’, 'aristocratic’ and ‘elegant’. A supreme technician, he nevertheless refrained from flaunting his extraordinary bow and finger dexterity. Instead he concentrated on the substance of the music, interpreting it in a warm, unaffected, personal manner. As a Romantic violinist he had in his repertory any number of virtuoso works, including his own ‘Paganiniana’, a wild melange of violinistic stunts based on the famous 24th Caprice by Paganini. But even in works like these he managed to imbue the music with a kind of elegance that completely transcended any hint of vulgarity.
He could well have been the most nearly perfect violinist of his time. Jascha Heifetz had a more electrifying technique, but there were those who considered him, rightly or wrongly, too cool and objective. Joseph Szigeti, who may have had a more probing musicianship and a wider repertory, never had the tone or technique of Mr. Milstein, who was able to bring everything together in a way matched by very few violinists of his time. His playing, virtuosic as it could be when the music demanded, always gave the feeling of intimacy. It was characteristic that he elected to use a Stradivarius. The Stradivarius is a more subtle instrument with a smaller sound than the Guarnerius del Jesu instruments favored by more exhibitionistic players.
Joseph Fuchs, the veteran American violinist and pedagogue, said that he had observed some significant changes in Mr. Milstein's playing during the 50 years they were friends. Mr. Milstein's tempos were faster when he was young, but as he grew older he slowed down, though he never could have been considered lethargic. But one thing Mr. Milstein always had, Mr. Fuchs said, and that was a natural, unforced way of handling the instrument. ‘There is a difference’, Mr. Fuchs said, ‘between facility and technique. Many violinists have facility. Technique is all-encompassing, taking in finger, bow and everything else. Milstein was a great technician. One reason he played so well at so advanced an age was because of his completely natural way of playing. He never forced the instrument, he never threw his muscles into strained or awkward positions. And as a musician he never stood still. He was always experimenting, changing, probing. He never stopped working’.
To Glenn Dicterow, the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic and a representative of the younger generation, Mr. Milstein ranked with Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler as one who set all-time standards. ‘Milstein was the complete violinist’, Mr. Dicterow said. ‘You heard three notes of the man and you knew who was playing. It was pure, uncluttered, honest playing free of any technical problems. He set a standard that nobody today can touch. He had such incredible flow, such incredible fluency. And he always sounded so spontaneous. I know of no other violinist in history who was playing with such security at so advanced an age. He was a tremendous inspiration to me. I idolized that man’.
He had several teachers as a child, the best of whom was Peter Stoliarsky, later the teacher of David Oistrakh. The young Milstein soon outstripped everybody around. At the age of 10 he played the Glazunov a-minor Violin Concerto with the composer on the podium. At 11, he was admitted into the Odessa Conservatory. When he was 12 he was in Auer's class in St. Petersburg. Among Auer's pupils were Mischa Elman, Heifetz, Efrem Zimbalist and Toscha Seidel, all Jews. In those days it was no easy matter for a Jew to gain admittance to the St. Petersburg or Moscow Conservatories, but Auer, once convinced of the genius of a young player, managed to arrange the necessary papers. Mr. Milstein remained with Auer for about three years and later in life said that Auer had not really taught him very much.
Mr. Milstein made his recital debut in 1915, accompanied at the piano by his sister. He soon started giving recitals all over Russia. In 1921 he started a lifelong friendship with a young pianist named Vladimir Horowitz. They thought much the same way about music, played through the entire literature at home and started giving concerts together.
In 1926 Mr. Milstein left Russia for Paris, arriving there with no money and no violin. For a short period he worked with the famous Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye. He soon found a patron, made a sensational debut in Paris, and his career as one of the great violinists was launched in the West. He promptly started the life of a major instrumentalist.
Mr. Milstein was one of the few top musicians who never went out of his way to court publicity or engage in bizarre ventures that would put him in the news. In public he always maintained his dignity. In private he was a wonderful raconteur who delighted in the absurdity of many aspects of life. In conversation he would hop from one subject to another, with a crazy kind of logic behind everything.
Whenever Mr. Milstein gave a concert, it always turned out to be a violinists' convention. Every violinist in the vicinity would attend, marveling at the ease and security of his playing. Mr. Milstein never worked much on technique. ‘The technique I acquired when I was 7’, he once told an interviewer.
As an interpreter he had certain mannerisms that marked his training and the musical period in which he grew up. As an exponent of the Romantic style, he did use certain slides that the younger generation considered old-fashioned, and his conceptions were in line with his Russian schooling. Mr. Milstein understood, as many literal-minded musicians today do not, that music has to be brought to life through the fingers, brains, ears, heart and experience of a performer who must necessarily express himself as well as the composer. ‘What makes an artist?’ he once asked. ‘In the end it is temperament, personality, character that count most. Some musicians are not great technicians, but they give you a rich point of view’.
As with all Romantics, it was with the expressive side of music that Mr. Milstein was primarily concerned. But he never paraded any spurious emotions onstage. His interpretations were marked by a sweet, pure tone produced by an infallible bow arm, by vaulting melodic phrases and a keen sense of the music's structure. In an age when the new generation of critics tended to despise the performances of pre-Beethoven music by such towering figures as Heifetz and Horowitz, Mr. Milstein's Bach remained immune to criticism. And in his Romantic repertory he was acknowledged as a supreme master and the last great active exponent of the Auer school.”
- Harold C. Schonberg, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 22 Dec., 1992