Nathan Milstein was part of that generation of great Russian musicians born around the turn of the century and who left the fledgling Soviet Union in the 1920s. In fact, Milstein left Russia on the same ship as pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Milstein was possessed of a fabulous technique and great musicianship. For some reason, he is less well-known than the majority of the virtuosi of the 20th century, but this relative neglect is certainly not for reason of any lack of genius. There are just some musicians the public will take to their hearts, and others equally or even more talented whom they will not.
In 1986 Milstein -- at the age of 82 and playing better than ever -- was in Stockholm to give two recitals which would be recorded for television. On the day of the first recital, he awoke to pain and stiffness in the first finger of his left hand. As there was no way to cancel the concert, he spent the day reworking the fingering of his entire recital -- an incredible undertaking, only made possible because throughout his lengthy career he had made a habit of reworking fingerings (sometimes during actual performances) in order to stave off that perpetual enemy of the good: routine.
Although he was not happy with that evening's performance, Milstein continued to practice the following day, and that night's recital -- which is currently available on a Teldec CD -- demonstrates triumphantly what an extraordinary musician Milstein was. As part of that final recital (final only because an injury to his hand a few months later brought career to an abrupt end), Milstein played as he often had before -- and as many a solo violinist still does -- the chaconne from Bach's Second Violin Partita.
Now, although it is common knowledge -- or as common as any knowledge about classical music can be -- that Bach's suites for solo cello were practically unknown before Pablo Casals began performing them at the turn of the century, it is far less well known that a similar situation apparently held with regard to the sonatas and partitas for solo violin; until Milstein began performing them complete in the 1930s, only individual movements tended to figure in the repertoire of the great violinists. Milstein was to record the complete sonatas and partitas on more than one occasion and continued playing them -- both entirely and individual movements -- until the end of his career.
These recordings of the three partitas -- I believe the sonatas were also recorded and I hope they will soon resurface -- date from the mid-50s and are in mono. But these facts need concern us for no longer than they take to read, for even if the recording were considerably less refined than it is, Milstein's performances are simply incomparable. By the time he made these recordings, Milstein had been studying and playing this music for almost four decades, and it shows in the depth of feeling and understanding that are manifest in every bar.
But the astonishing thing about these performances, and the thing that has kept me listening repeatedly, is their freshness, the almost palpable sense of discovery, as if Milstein were constantly discovering new things in the music. And so much does he find to say in the music that I found myself hearing previously unnoticed figurations, unexpected thematic and rhythmic relationships, tiny details of counterpoint, on each listening.
Just to select a few examples. The wonderful "hoe down" effect of the swinging double and triple stopping in the opening preludio of the Third Partita (from 0:21-26 and again at around 1:30), immediately followed by the tranquil repose of the loure. Or the contemplative, inner-directed First Partita. Or, inevitably, the monumental, stately tragic dance that is the famous chaconne from the Second Partita -- one of the veritable peaks of the solo violin repertoire and, at 13:39, nearly 25% of the entire disc. Milstein's chaconne is bold and dramatic -- listen to those slashing chords from 0:30 followed by an almost zigeuner (i.e., gypsy) double-stopped portamento at around 0:50. Milstein's superb technique also means that his bowing never obstructs the pulse of the music, something that can be easily heard in other performances where there are tiny adjustments of the tempo to accommodate a technique less accomplished than his.
No doubt some in these days of historically informed performances will consider Milstein's approach old-fashioned and overly romantic. Well, perhaps. But surely all truly great music can accommodate many viewpoints. For me, at any rate, Milstein's approach is a uniquely valuable one, bringing a dramatic vitality and emotional intellectualism to music which can, in lesser hands, sound dry and academic.
The recorded sound still sounds very well for its age, with the instrument close enough that we can, on occasion, hear Milstein's breathing, but not so close as to shut out all the air around the instrument or to bring the distracting "sound effects" that inevitably accompany the mechanics of playing any instrument. (Oscar Shumsky's set on ASV is a good example of how not to do this). Additionally, the sound of the solo violin is perhaps less damaged than any other instrument by the lack of stereo information, so the mono recording holds up well.
EMI has been rather more lax than other labels (notably Mercury, RCA, Sony, and DG) to mine its back catalog, and the production values on this "Full Dimensional Sound" reissue are nothing as exciting as those on the DG Originals or the Sony Masterworks Heritage series. The liner note is OK, and the CD itself has a replica of the original LP label on its printed side, but there is no picture of the original LP issue or much of the additional historical information that makes the previously mentioned series (particularly the Sony) so interesting.
There are many complete sonata and partita cycles in the catalog -- over two dozen at last count -- by most of today's "name" violinists. Without wishing in any way to minimize the achievements of others, Milstein's pioneering efforts on behalf of this music deserve our attention. His performances absolutely demand it.
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