A reader writes:
A small request, hmmm? Howzabout, on 12/31, you (pretty please with sugar on top) mention Milstein on the blog? Something like: “Today is the 100th birthday of the greatest violinist of the 20th century – Nathan Milstein. So, get out there and buy one of his albums today!” You could also put in a plug for your upcoming article on Milstein and Kaufman (heh, heh).
I’m delighted to oblige. The “Milstein” in question is Nathan Milstein, whose name is now remembered mainly by aging violin connoisseurs–Jascha Heifetz got much better press–but who was, if not the greatest violinist of the 20th century, certainly one of the half-dozen greatest ever to make recordings. He never became as big a celebrity as Heifetz because his playing wasn’t as idiosyncratic: his tone was lean and focused, his interpretations poised and patrician, not exactly restrained but not exhibitionistic, either.
Such a musician isn’t for everyone, any more than a singer like Nicolai Gedda or a painter like Vuillard suits all tastes. Milstein lacked that slight touch of vulgarity–the common touch, if you like–that so often helps to bridge the emotional gap between artist and audience. Yet those who responded to his playing did so passionately, and there were more than enough of them for Milstein to have a long and satisfying career. He even wrote a wonderful memoir, From Russia to the West, in which he speaks with occasionally hair-raising candor about colleagues and contemporaries (among them his good friend George Balanchine, whose personality Milstein evokes with remarkable vividness).
Milstein made a lot of records, and most of the best of them have been transferred to CD and are fairly easy to find. If you want to jump in head first, The Art of Nathan Milstein,
a budget-priced six-disc boxed set, contains a good-sized chunk of his working repertoire. If you’d rather start with a smaller taste, I recommend a CD that couples his early stereo recordings of the Tchaikovsky and Brahms concertos, available from amazon.com for the preposterously low price of $3.98. (Both performances are also included in The Art of Nathan Milstein.) You might also try his superb remake
of Bach’s six sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin–the best complete set ever recorded, as far as I’m concerned.
As my correspondent notes, I’m planning to publish an essay about Milstein and Louis Kaufman in Commentary some time in 2004. But why wait? At the very least, give that Tchaikovsky-Brahms CD a spin. I don’t promise to refund your money, but if you aren’t won over by Milstein’s soaring performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, I’ll be amazed.