Julian Haylock explores the life, musicianship and recordings of a man who for many represented the pinnacle of all a violinist can be
Nathan Milstein was a violinist’s violinist. Purity was his watchword as he negotiated even the most notorious technical chicanery with a nonchalant sleight-of-hand. He avoided the use of shoulder pads or rests as they impeded the jewelled perfection of his sound, activated by long flowing bow-strokes sustained at comparatively low pressure. His playing arose out of a legato bedrock, studiously avoiding the percussive ‘kick’ of a traditional staccato. Employing the angled bow-hold and concave thumb of his teacher Leopold Auer (rarely encountered nowadays) and activating each stroke from the shoulder, his sweeping arm action created a seamless flow. His unusually supple left-hand fingers hovered perilously close to the strings and fell gently – he could not abide high-velocity, high trajectory fingering and its attendant ‘banging’ on the fingerboard. The resultant effect was as though his hands and arms were merely floating around the instrument as he played it.
Milstein’s stage persona was as elegant and undistracting as his playing mechanism. Some mistook his lack of flamboyance for interpretative cool, yet careful listening, and watching, reveals his profound micromanagement of phrasing and inflection, entirely free of rhetorical gesture. He tended to avoid the cloying espressivo of a slow vibrato, preferring to explore the medium-to-fast range and senza (‘without’) so as not to impair the shimmering accuracy of his intonation. He had a special sensitivity for the violin’s tonal spectrum – grounded by its open strings (G–D–A–E) – and used natural harmonics freely (achieved by touching the string lightly at specific points) as a means of anchoring the tuning of ordinary, stopped notes.
Milstein continually honed and refined his playing in an attempt to discover ever-more graceful solutions to the thornier challenges of the repertoire. He kept his playing fresh by adopting new fingerings as the occasion demanded, even in mid-performance as the inspiration came to him. Little wonder that the renowned New York Times critic and journalist Harold C Schoenberg once described Milstein as ‘The most nearly perfect violinist of his time.’
Of all the great violin concertos, the Mendelssohn E minor came closest to matching the jewelled perfection of Milstein’s quicksilver soundworld. Recorded with the Chicago Symphony and Walter Hendl in March 1962, when Milstein was at the height of his powers, one can savour at close hand his majestic playing action, capped by a glorious downward octave portamento in the final coda at 26:33. Keep watching as a stunning performance (recorded the following year) of the Preludio from Bach’s E major solo Partita follows:
One can readily sense just how much the Mendelssohn meant to Milstein from a rare 1966 film of him discussing the concerto in French with infectious energy and humour, including some unscheduled guitar-like pizzicato:
Born in the Ukrainian city of Odessa in December 1903, Milstein insisted that ‘I started to play the violin not because I was drawn to it, but because my mother forced me to in order to keep me out of mischief!’ Aged seven he began formal lessons with Piotr Stolyarsky, and although he felt he learned very little from him at the time, Stolyarsky clearly knew a thing or two about the violin as his later pupils included Leonid Kogan and David Oistrakh. Four years later Milstein joined Leopold Auer’s legendary Moscow masterclasses, a hotbed of violinistic endeavour that had already produced Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman and Efrem Zimbalist (father of the American television actor). Even under the severe pressure of playing in front of 50 fellow students every lesson, Milstein stood out from the pack, astonishing Auer with his displays of ‘Black Sea technique’.
Returning to Odessa, Milstein quickly came to the attention of none other than rising piano superstar Vladimir Horowitz, with whom he established an instant rapport. ‘Horowitz invited me around for tea,’ Milstein later reflected, ‘and I ended up staying three years!’ The two chums became virtually inseparable and having earned the sobriquet ‘Children of the Revolution’, were given official permission to tour Western Europe. Milstein never returned to the homeland, heading instead (via a series of consultations with Eugène Ysaÿe) for the United States, where he made a sensational debut on 17 October 1929, playing the Glazunov Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski. The incandescent quality of Milstein’s playing at this time was captured four years later in a live Copenhagen recording of Paganini’s Caprice No 5, destined to become one of his signature pieces:
It was around this time that Milstein formed a ‘million-dollar’ piano trio with Horowitz and the great Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky to rival even the all-star Heifetz-Rubinstein-Feuermann outfit. Piatigorsky discovered with some astonishment that Milstein rarely practised as such, but that he was ‘rarely without the fiddle in his hands’, as he experimented with new fingerings and bowings. ‘His quick movements, lively eyes and shiny black hair, and his medium-sized frame suggested youth that would stay with him forever,’ Piatigorsky also noted.
By now Milstein had acquired his first Stradivarius, the so-called ‘Dancla’ (1703), which can be savoured on two American recordings dating from 1942. The first features the slow movement of Bruch’s G minor Concerto, which finds Milstein at his most radiantly expressive, inspired no doubt by the heartfelt conducting of John Barbirolli with the New York Philharmonic:
The other demonstrates his dazzling technique in a scintillating performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble-Bee, with the great Mozartian Artur Balsam at the piano:
Immediately after the war, Milstein acquired the violin which (despite owning a 1727 Guarneri del Gesù) would become his principal instrument: the 1716 ‘Goldman’ Stradivarius, later renamed the ‘Marie Thérèse’ after Milstein’s wife and daughter. Three years later he was accorded the honour of recording Columbia Records’ first 12” microgroove LP (the Mendelssohn Concerto with Bruno Walter), yet it was during the 1950-60s – by which time Milstein was already in his fifties and had made London his main home – that his playing began exhibiting an enhanced tonal and expressive warmth. One can already sense the sea-change in the velvety sonics of Nováček’s quick-fire Perpetuum mobile, captured in 1957 with the doyen of BBC accompanists Ernest Lush:
…and a dazzling performance of Milstein’s self-penned party-piece, the finger-crippling Paganiniana, in which his increasing tendency to bow deftly ‘around corners’ (as opposed to remaining constantly parallel with the bridge) is particularly noticeable:
Yet it is Milstein’s concerto recordings of the period that most vividly capture the sense of a supreme violinist at the height of his powers, combining pristine facility with enhanced emotional immediacy. His 1957 remake of the Dvořák Concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and William Steinberg sparkles in the finale with an affectionate glow that fully conveys the music’s ingenuous peasant dancing:
A majestic 1963 performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Chicago Symphony and Walter Hendl exchanges Heifetz’s rapier-like thrust and Stern’s meltdown espressivo for an uncluttered, almost Mozartian vision that keeps even the most over-heated passages in proportion. The notorious first movement solo cadenza (8:57) is despatched with almost nonchalant indifference – during one sequence of rippling arpeggiations Milstein somehow finds time to throw in a flying A harmonic (9:25) for the special appreciation and amazement of the cognoscenti:
There is one magnum opus, however, in which many feel Milstein remained unsurpassed: Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. In this hallowed repertoire his near-flawless mechanism came into its own, exchanging the downward cut and thrust of mainstream post-Romanticism for a horizontalised, exquisitely cushioned flow of velvet-toned clarity. His 1973 Grammy Award-winning recording for Deutsche Grammophon finds the 70-year-old playing with a shimmering precision that would grace a musician half his age, as witness the finale of the G minor Sonata
Yet the ultimate test of any violinist’s skills remains the mighty Chaconne from the D minor Partita, and remarkably Milstein included it as part of what turned out to be his final recital in Stockholm on 17 July 1986, aged an almost unbelievable 82 at the time:
In 1989 Milstein suffered a bad fall at home and sustained an injury to his right arm which precluded him from ever playing again. Visiting him at home during his recuperation, Milstein’s celebrated colleague and devoted admirer Pinchas Zukerman asked Milstein what the secret of his playing was – ‘not spoiling the mood’ came the disarming reply. Calmly accepting the situation, Milstein turned his attention instead to a series of violin transcriptions, which encapsulate the exquisite taste and style that had characterised his entire playing career. ‘His violin belonged to his body no less than his arms and legs,’ Piatigorsky once memorably observed. ‘Nathan could be only what he was: a marvellous violinist.’