Let’s finish out the week with a few recordings of Nathan Milstein (1904-1992), one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary violinists. Infused with elegance, style and thoughtful musicianship, Milstein’s playing never sounds dated. These recordings demonstrate his ability to draw out the most ringing tone from the violin, using the speed and energy of the bow. The purity of his intonation and subtle, well controlled vibrato remain impressive.
Milstein, who was born in Russia and spent much of his life in the United States, was one of the last students of Leopold Auer, the legendary teacher of Mischa Elman and Jascha Heifetz. Throughout his life, he was known for constantly finding new ways to approach technical and musical problems. He never stopped experimenting and learning, and as a result, his playing remained at a high level into old age. He performed his final recital at the age of 82.
We’ll start with a 1957 recording of Antonín Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op 53 with William Steinberg conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony.
- Allegro ma non troppo (0:00)
- Adagio ma non troppo (9:08)
- Finale. Allegro giocoso (19:48)
Here are the Adagio and Fugue from J.S. Bach’s Solo Sonata No. 1:
…and now, for dessert, here is a spectacular performance of Henri Wieniawski’s Scherzo tarantella, Op. 16:
5 thoughts on “The Artistry of Nathan Milstein”
I had both the Dvorak recordings and the one called “Milstein’s Miniatures” which contained the Szerzo Tarantella. I saw Milstein perform the Tschaikovsky concerto once. His sound was like velvet, but not particularly powerful. His playing was marked by polish rather than stylistic flourish, like Heifetz. I heard Elman too, in the gym of a jr. high school in Fitchburg, Mass. I was about 7 when my father, also a violinist took me to the concert. Elman’s sound was extraordinary, powerful and even thunderous at times, much like Oistrakh’s (I heard him play the Tschaikovsky in Baltimore in about 1963 while I was a Peabody Student of William Kroll and Robert Gerle. I was living in NY in the late 80s when Milstein had scheduled what would be his last concert. He cancelled and never appeared again in public, I believe. I always regretted missing that concert. The same thing occurred with a scheduled NY concert of Joseph Fuchs, another hero of the violin, although not nearly as well known.
I forgot to mention that the Dvorak was coupled with the Glazunov and Milstein’s performance of that one still stands out in my mind. I also owned and wore thin Milstein’s recording of the Goldmark, the only extant recording of the piece other than that of Bronislav Gimpel, whose playing was exquisite, as well.
My father always preferred his tone to Heifetz’.
Milstein was, in true sense of the word, the aristocrat of the violin- technically immaculate, polished and blessed with a beautiful tone. He was equally good at classical works of Bach and Beethoven and romantic encore pieces. How blessed that era was to have so many of greats, each with his or her own distinct personality, at a time!
I agree. The true Golden Age of violin performance was the first part of the 20th Century. It dwindled after that, not because there were few technical whizzes–in fact, there were more of them–but because the greats we think of as legendary all grew up in isolation of each other. They didn’t (couldn’t) listen regularly to each other’s recordings. Very few had recordings or even a means of listening to them. From 1900 to about 1930, most of the great ones had already been trained and their careers were launched. By the advent of World War II, most of them (with a few exceptions) had made international reputations for themselves. Consequently, Heifetz, Menuhin, Francescatti, Oistrakh, Stern, Milstein, et al. had clearly distinguishable styles. The players who followed, especially the Galamian pupils, all have identical techniques and sounds. Zimbalist once said that Galamian could make a violinist out of a table. That was indeed true and he DID make many, many tables into violin players. But you cannot make an artist out of a table and when you impose a technique upon someone, you rob them of all the quirks that come naturally to them.
The idiosyncracies that make up a style were judiciously taught “out of them” and their playing became totally homogenized. Perlman once said that he worried about this very thing, style. As most of the others now try to make reputations for themselves as technical geniuses, but they don’t do much for me. I’d take the less than sparkling technique of Joseph Szigeti over most of the ones playing today. I’ll take Francescatti of all of the young ones.
I used to be able to tell them apart by listening to them. Stern, Milstein, Francescatti, Heifetz, et al. had distinguishable styles, distinguishable sounds, distinguishable musical minds. Not any more. I can’t tell any of the others apart. It’s disappointing.