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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, March 2007

These three recordings were made for RCA Victor in 1950 and 1951, a brief interregnum between Milstein’s Columbia and Capitol years. They pair him with two long-standing colleagues, Piatigorsky and Horowitz, with whom he had many years earlier formed a trio. They also pair Milstein with the loyal Artur Balsam and the Philadelphia, under its nom de plume, directed by Reiner.

Whatever Milstein may have written in his memoirs – liberally drawn on by Tully Potter in his notes – one would never know from his recordings for which works he harboured reservations, resentment or indeed contempt. The memoirs are, it’s true, sometimes remarkable for the disdain in which he held a swathe of concertos and sonatas. He was not committed to all the Beethoven sonatas and was not one to commit full cycles to disc. He evinced interest in only four of them and here we have the Spring with Balsam. A later stereo recording exists of his performance. But fortunately a live Library of Congress performance given by the two men in 1953 – three years later than this studio effort – has been issued on Bridge 9066. It attests to the security of the conception that three movements are almost identical, almost to the second, but that the slow movement, as one might guess, is somewhat more leisurely and relaxed in the Library of Congress – 10:08 to 9:08. The performance generally is a fine one though the caveat is the recording. It was recorded somewhat too “close to the bone” so that accompanying violin figures are elevated to overt statements in their own right, which does little for matters of balance.

Milstein’s phrasing is – one hates to use the word, so much a cliché has it become of his musicianship – aristocratic. He deigns to indulge flashy entries or to over-indulge. Even though the Adagio is quicker than the Library of Congress performance there’s no sense of haste or impatience. Balsam’s pointing is full of incident and deft control. The finale’s wit is, for my taste, rather too reserved but it’s part of a broad ranging conception.

The Brahms sonata pairs Milstein with Horowitz; this was their only collaboration on disc and this is Milstein’s sole commercial recording of the work. The outlines of this are so similar to the Balsam-Library of Congress live reading on the same Bridge disc that housed the Spring that Milstein must surely have strongly dictated the terms of the performance. For those who are interested in such things the differences are a matter of a few seconds. The ensemble between the two men is excellent. Horowitz was an unconvincing interpreter of the concertos, regularly browbeaten by Toscanini into performances that were aligned exclusively to the conductor’s concept. But with Milstein we find a rather different story – superb chording, animation in pedalling, dynamism and verve. Milstein’s subtle vibrato usage is at its height in the slow movement.

The Double Concerto saw Milstein teamed with Piatigorsky, who clearly didn’t share the violinist’s reservations about the work – though to be fair Milstein is hardly the first or last fiddle player to express these kinds of views. The recording has some deficiencies – horns are sometimes strangely “blurry” – but none regarding the performances. Reiner is up to his accustomed level of interpretative insight and Piatigorsky demonstrates his credentials as a Brahmsian. Ensemble work is first class.

For the transfers Producer Mark Obert-Thorn has used a 45-rpm set for the Spring and commercial RCA LPs for the two Brahms. They sound extremely well – full of body and range.

Geoff Bennett
Limelight, December 2006

Although Milstein, Horowitz and Piatigorsky played as a trio, their performances were never recorded, which makes these collaborations all the more special. In the Brahms Sonata No.3, his only studio recording with Horowitz, Milstein seems to be lifted by his partners illuminating contribution. According to Milstein's memoirs, he didn't care much for Brahms's music, saying he only made this recording of the Double Concerto out of respect for Piatigorsky. The great cellist's performance is engrossing from the outset and their collaboration is often electrifying, with an alert accompaniment from Fritz Reiner and the Philadelphia Orchestra (for contractual reasons using their 1951 summer festival name of The Robin Hood Dell Orchestra). There's a certain dryness and stridency to Milstein's sound, most noticeable in the 1950 recording of Beethoven's" Spring" Sonata, in which Milstein is joined by his long-time piano partner, Artur Balsam.

Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, August 2006

Expert restorations devoted to Russian violin virtuoso Nathan Milstein (1904-1992), whose artistry this reviewer esteemed above all others, including Heifetz. Mark Obert-Thorn has resuscitated 1950-1951 inscriptions Milstein made for RCA, including the rare collaboration with Artur Balsam (1906-1994) in the Spring Sonata (6 June 1950) and the one extant chamber work Milstein inscribed with his partner of long standing, Vladimir Horowitz (1904-1989), in the last of the Brahms sonatas (22, 29 June 1950). The cleanliness of articulation in the Spring Sonata is now even more pronounced than it had been in the LP incarnation (LM 134). Considering how little patience Milstein had for Beethoven's violin writing, the spontaneity and lightness of his approach is remarkable for its fluency and sympathy with Balsam's bravura piano part. The last movement is literally as breezy as a Spring morning, rife with digital sunshine.

Milstein and Horowitz failed to make more recordings of duo sonatas for the simple reason that they could not agree on repertory. The matched virtuosity in this relatively fast-paced, unsentimental account achieves several luminous moments, beyond the unearthly parlando effects and aura of mystery that permeates the first two movements. A salon intimacy pervades the Adagio, whose starts and stops more than suggest the influence of Schumann. Milstein's suave rendition of the scherzo makes me regret Huberman's not having also recorded the piece, especially as Milstein ads a hint of Singhalese (in sympathy to the last movement of the A Minor Concerto) to the mix. Lovely, deft arpeggios from Horowitz. The last movement cuts loose, with Horowitz reminding us what he could do with the Allegro appassionato from the B-flat Concerto. The ritornello opening theme becomes quite superheated, the bass chords in Horowitz's piano seething while Milstein drives forward. Only the Oistrakh/Richter collaboration a generation later would rival this distinct performance for Russian soul.

Milstein recorded the A Minor Concerto (29 June 1951) as a tribute to his friend Gregor Piatagorsky. Milstein later refused a request by Pierre Fournier to make a stereo version. Assisted by Fritz Reiner and the summer Philadelphia Orchestra, Piatagorsky and Milstein make swift, blazing work of the piece. Piatagorsky's tone is wide, his vibrato fast. His romantic, lingering approach is offset by Reiner and Milstein's forward impetus. While this restores all four Brahms concertos (under RCA contract) with Fritz Reiner at the helm; some collectors are lucky enough to own the Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto with Serkin (from Pittsburgh) on CD as well. Here, Reiner leads the orchestra he truly coveted but never led as permanent conductor. There is nothing of Milstein's purported irony in the plastic, finely molded Andante, his taste for Brahms always jaded by his feeling that the part writing is unidiomatic. The Vivace non troppo enjoys a vigorous muscularity, a Hungarian flavor thoroughly convincing without sacrificing the clarity of line for which each of these principals was justly famous. Recommended.

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