About this Recording
8.110977 - MENDELSSOHN / TCHAIKOVSKY / BRUCH: Violin Concertos (Milstein) (1940-1945)

Great Violinists: Nathan Milstein (1904-1992)

Great Violinists: Nathan Milstein (1904-1992)

Mendelssohn • Bruch • Tchaikovsky


Like all great musicians, Nathan Milstein had firm opinions about the music he played (or did not play, such as the Sibelius Concerto). Most violinists cite the Beethoven and Brahms Concertos at the top of their list of favourites, and in his memoirs Milstein duly described the Beethoven as ‘a miracle, something that seems to have come out of thin air, like some sort of divine message’. But he clearly preferred all three of the concertos on this disc to the Brahms. The Mendelssohn – ‘a work of genius from the first note to the last’ – was his second choice. ‘And then, alas, the Brahms Concerto.’ That ‘alas’ tells one a great deal about his opinion of the work (although his marvellous performances of it never gave away an inkling of his doubts). He names the Tchaikovsky, written in the same year as the Brahms (1878), as ‘truly a virtuoso concerto’ and there is no doubt about his feelings. He continues: ‘I feel that Max Bruch’s First Concerto is a masterpiece. It has virtues that cannot be found anywhere else’. And he goes on to say that he prefers it to the Brahms, despite its less consistent quality – ‘the finale is not so good’. He says nothing about his view of Tchaikovsky’s finale, although the fact that he habitually abbreviated it in performance speaks volumes. What it all boils down to is that here we have one of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century playing music he really loves.


Born in Odessa on New Year’s Eve 1904, into a middle-class commercial family, Nathan Mironovich 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 ‘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; their duo 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 the Glazunov Concerto), 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.


It is difficult to single out any one of Milstein’s four recordings of the Mendelssohn Concerto. It was a work he always played well – he even liked to perform it in recital with piano accompaniment, a nineteenth-century practice which was already becoming outmoded in his day. This recording of it, his first, is amazingly fresh and spontaneous, especially when one considers it was taken down in short sections. It is one of two best-selling concerto recordings that the great German-born conductor Bruno Walter made with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra (the other was the Emperor Concerto with Rudolf Serkin). Milstein first worked with Walter in Leipzig, playing the Tchaikovsky with him on 27th October 1932. He had such a success that Walter suggested he play a Bach encore, and to the amazement of the orchestra,  led by Carl Münch (Charles Munch), who would later, as a conductor, record the Tchaikovsky with Milstein, the violinist proceeded to play the entire G minor solo Sonata. Walter did not hold it against him. With the Bruch, it is possible to say unequivocally that this is Milstein’s best recording (of three); it also has excellent sound for its time and the soloist’s tone is captured with considerable fidelity. The performance comes from the tail end of John Barbirolli’s period as chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, when the Englishman was under fire from the (mostly rather pompous) New York critics. Bizarrely, he was even criticised for his accompanying of soloists, in which he was an acknowledged master before going to America. When one hears the recordings he made with the orchestra, it is difficult to imagine what his opponents were complaining about – the Schumann Concerto with Menuhin is wonderful and his partnership with Milstein here is inspired. Indeed, although Jascha Heifetz is acknowledged as the foremost Bruch player of his time, Milstein mounts a serious challenge with this immaculate interpretation. The Tchaikovsky Concerto, by contrast, suffers a little from the stolid conducting of Frederick Stock, who clearly shares the violinist’s classical view of the piece but not his intensity; and yet there are a number of places where the veteran maestro, like Barbirolli a string player, interacts sensitively with Milstein. In particular, Stock gamely stays with his soloist in a hair-raising account of the finale, the most exciting on record from Milstein.


Tully Potter



Producer’s Note


Beginning in the late 1930s, the American Columbia label began to record on 33 1/3 rpm lacquer master discs.  The recordings were still done in three to four minute segments, and the approved takes were then dubbed onto wax 78 rpm master discs.  While the shellac pressings made using this method did not sound nearly as good as those by rival labels using direct-to-wax 78 mastering, the real pay-off came with the advent of the microgroove LP, introduced by Columbia in 1948.  The wider frequency range and quieter surfaces afforded by the lacquer masters provided a source for early LP transfers that was superior even to transferring from 78 rpm metal masters, and yielded sound on a par with early 1950s tape masters.


The three Milstein concerto recordings presented on this disc were among the earliest to be issued by Columbia on LP; indeed, the Mendelssohn was the label’s very first 12-inch microgroove release (ML-4001).  Because of their superior sound, the current transfers have been made from LPs which were in turn transferred from the lacquer masters.  In the Tchaikovsky, a few pops and swishes are present in the original lacquers, as is the cut in the finale.


Mark Obert-Thorn


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