About this Recording
8.110975 - DVORAK / GLAZUNOV: Violin Concertos (Milstein) (1949-1951)

Nathan Milstein (1904-1992)

Nathan Milstein (1904-1992)

Dvor˘ák • Mozart • Glazunov


Musicians often come along in pairs, as if to disprove the old adage that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, and invariably one of the pair will be somewhat overshadowed by the other. Among Russian violinists, Nathan Mironovich Milstein was unfairly put in the shade by Jascha Heifetz, just as Leonid Kogan was later to be by David Oistrakh. Whereas the rather more plebeian Mischa Elman was generally placed in a class of his own by both critics and public, Heifetz and Milstein were often compared because they came from a similar violinistic pedigree and presented the same sort of aristocratic platform profile. In truth they were different in social background and many of their strengths were complementary: they were more or less equal in the music of such composers as Brahms and Tchaikovsky, but otherwise Milstein excelled in precisely those areas where Heifetz was weakest, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. This disc features three of those composers of whom Milstein could be said to be the superior interpreter. Heifetz had his moments in Mozart but in general was too high-powered for the Salzburg master. His encounters with Dvor˘ák were not impressive - he did not even play the Concerto - and even his excellent interpretation of Glazunov’s Violin Concerto had to bow to that of Milstein, which had won the approval of the composer.


Born in Odessa on New Year’s Eve 1904, into a middle-class commercial family, Milstein was encouraged by his mother to take up the violin before going at seven to Pyotr Stolyarsky’s school, from which he graduated just as the next star pupil, David Oistrakh, was giving a first performance. In contrast to Oistrakh, Milstein did not develop a rapport with Stolyarsky; in fact at an early age he developed an ironic, independent viewpoint, and a scepticism towards those in authority which would not have served him well in post-Revolution Russia. Part of this healthy dissent showed itself in his refusal to be dominated mentally by his teachers. He was always dismissive of the so-called cult of personality and had run-ins with several ‘star’ conductors. The highlight of his time at Stolyarsky’s was the brilliant performance of Glazunov’s Concerto he gave in 1915 with the composer on the podium. From 1916 to 1917 he was at the St Petersburg Conservatory with Leopold Auer, for whom, true to form, he had more respect than love, and this sojourn gave the final polish to his lofty style, although he learnt as much from listening to fellow students such as Heifetz, Toscha Seidel, Eddy Brown, Miron Polyakin and Cecilia Hansen as from the great pedagogue. ‘I truly came to love the violin in Petersburg’, he wrote. ‘I liked going to the Conservatory, and I liked the atmosphere of competition in Auer’s class – talented children playing the violin, one better than the next, inspiring me to try harder.’ Milstein’s capacity for hard work impressed Auer, who presented him with a bow. ‘I later learned that the bow was very cheap, but for the notoriously miserly Auer it was an amazing gesture.’ All the same, Milstein was forsaken when Auer emigrated to the United States in 1917, and from the age of thirteen he was essentially an auto-didact, educating himself into the cultured figure familiar in later years.


Milstein knew considerable poverty in the years after the 1917 Revolution, but gradually built up his career and in Kiev in 1921 met a young pianist called Vladimir Horowitz, collaborating in a duo which grew into a trio with Gregor Piatigorsky. In 1923 Milstein played Glazunov’s Concerto in the newly-named Petrograd with the conductorless orchestra Persimfans, and Glazunov, drunk as usual, insisted on trying to perform an encore with him. More successful were concerts at which he and Horowitz shared the platform with the Stradivarius Quartet, or singers such as Antonina Nezhdanova and Leonid Sobinov. Sometimes he played the violin for the ageing ballerina Ekaterina Geltzer as she performed The Dying Swan. At one concert in Moscow in 1923, he gave the local premières of the (first) concertos by Szymanowski and Prokofiev, with Horowitz playing the orchestral parts on the piano. ‘The culmination of my touring with Horowitz through Russia was our appearances in [Petrograd] in 1923’, he wrote. ‘They were enormously successful. [...] We were greeted and treated as rock stars are today.’ The grand finale was an orchestral concert at which Milstein again played the Glazunov Concerto with the composer conducting.


On Christmas Day 1925, Milstein left Russia for good to tour Europe with Horowitz. An appearance in Spain led to his crossing the Atlantic, to give recitals in Buenos Aires and Montevideo with the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, and at a concert in Vienna his small but select audience included Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Julius Korngold. The summer of 1926 was spent in Ysaÿe’s orbit, although the Belgian told him: ‘Go, there is nothing I can teach you’. He emigrated to the United States in 1928, making his début with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski the following year (in Glazunov’s Concerto, one of his best interpretations), and with the New York Philharmonic in 1930. Thereafter he divided his career between the old world and the new. Although he became an American citizen in 1942, he was based alternately in Paris and London after the Second World War. He was still playing to a high standard in his early eighties – his last recital, which was filmed, was given in Stockholm in 1986. In his later years he also taught, both privately and at the Juilliard School and the Zurich Conservatoire. ‘What I feel I can offer these young musicians’, he said, ‘is simply what I have learned myself through experience. I try not to impose my way on them, not to teach them to play, even, but to help teach them to think.’ He died in London on 21st December 1992.


Milstein was a leading figure in Columbia’s push to challenge the RCA Victor label on the American market; and in the 1940s he, Szigeti, and Busch all made important recordings for the label. By the end of that decade, however, he had himself been signed by the red label, on which he found himself competing with Heifetz for the same central pool of repertoire. Small wonder that after a few years he moved over to the Capitol label, where he was magnificently recorded – arguably better than he would have been by RCA – and made famous LPs with William Steinberg (1899-1978) and his close friend Vladimir Golschmann (1893-1972). Part of the interest of the present disc is that it brings together his first efforts with those conductors; while in the Dvor˘ák he is teamed with the great Hungarian maestro Antal Doráti (1906-88). By one of those strange ironies, Milstein forsook Columbia just when that company was getting the upper hand. Columbia had been recording at 33 1/3 rpm since 1939 and although initially its productions were all dubbed on to 78rpm discs, in 1948 it was ready to launch the 12-inch and 10-inch LP record, pressed on vinyl and rotating at 33rpm. RCA Victor made the strategic error of backing the 7-inch 45rpm vinyl format, which eventually made it the king of the jukebox market but lost it valuable ground on the main battlefield. Classical record buyers, in particular, did not want to be making three disc turnovers in a symphony or concerto when they could get away with one. The Glazunov Concerto was issued in the United States and in Britain on five 78rpm sides (with the Meditation, Op. 42, on the sixth side) and then in the United States on five 45rpm sides (with the same filler), before finally making it to the LP format in the US and Italy. It was then rather eclipsed by Milstein’s remake with the same conductor (but with Steinberg’s own Pittsburgh Symphony) for Capitol. The Mozart pieces had the same sort of catalogue career (78rpm in America, 45rpm in America and Britain), finally being coupled on LP in the United States with the Glazunov Concerto. The Dvor˘ák Concerto appeared only on 45rpm and 33rpm and was never issued in Britain, although it did have two LP issues in France. It too was overtaken by a Milstein and Steinberg remake for Capitol. So this CD rescues four splendid performances by a great violinist, from perhaps the least publicised period of his recording career.


Tully Potter

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