I was in high school and was playing a recital when after a long and demanding concert I played a quiet encore: the Chopin Nocturne in C sharp minor arranged by Nathan Milstein.
In the post concert discussion with my teacher, I think he was happier with my selection of encore than with the recital itself. Then he mentioned an arrangement by Milstein that I had never heard of: the Seamstress.
I filed that in the back of my mind and continued studying his other arrangements. In the folio was not only the Chopin but the Liszt Consolation and Tchaikovsky Lullaby from Mazeppa. Milstein had recorded all three and the Liszt and the Chopin had been recorded by many other fine violinists.
Milstein’s more virtuosic arrangements, such as Paganiniana and Liszt Mephisto Waltz show up regularly in the arsenals of adventuresome virtuosi such as Ricci, Kremer and Hahn.
It is interesting to read Milstein's transcriptions and then listen to his performances. In his later recording of Paganiniana he changes some things from the printed score. Same with the Liszt Consolation. I personally didn't like the Mephisto Waltz until I heard a live recorded performance my friend George Philips had procured. Milstein added things that seemed to fill out the arrangement a little more.
In his memoirs he mentioned that he had the idea of Paganiniana for awhile. He writes:
“The idea for “Paganiniana” was in my mind for a long time, but I didn’t write it until I was in America. I needed a ten-minute piece for a recital, and I put “Paganiniana,” on the program, then forced myself to spend several nights in a row to finish the work. I was still changing it the day before the concert! It’s a horrible habit of mine to keep fussing with my own transcriptions. Sometimes you make a change and then, in the concert, you feel your fingers going somewhere else.”
He did seem to have a penchant for piano pieces. Who would think to arrange Mephisto Waltz for unaccompanied violin?
Apparently when Milstein was studying, there was little sheet music available and he would use his sisters piano music to practice. Nothing difficult...just Chopin Etudes. So of course Milstein developed a singular facility that sometimes defied violinistic logic. In his book on the violin, Boris Schwartz discusses how Milstein strove for purity of sound and used open strings and harmonics which seemed to work for him.
But despite the popularity of some of his other works, The Seamstress never shows up on programs. It has been in print (and remains so) since the 1990's in a volume of four Russian transcriptions from Schirmer.
He did record a version of the Seamstress in the 1930's but once again it was not identical to the arrangement published later. I assume it went through a metamorphosis of sorts. He did perform it as an encore in the later part of his career as evidenced by a review from St Louis in 1980.
In learning it I tried to follow his later intent rather than copying the earlier recording. In that recording Milstein plays everything separate as opposed to slurred. The original piano version also has this legato approach.
The arrangement is quite difficult, okay I lied....it's ridiculously hard! It's a testament to his playing ability that he could do this at the end of a program while in his late 70's and early 80's.
As I practiced. I tried to figure out how open strings or harmonics could be used to negotiate the leaps. This is the kind of piece that seems simple but the jumps are not quite what one would expect and I practiced as I tell my own students: slowly and in small sections. I worked on a couple of lines and then tried to find a better fingering, then I went to another section and found out that the fingering didn’t work with the next so back to the drawing board. Eventually, I got the entire thing and tried to build up the speed necessary to get the whirring sound of a sewing machine to come to life.
Once again, I have to thank my friend Alex Beyer for consenting to record this with me.
And a note to my students: YES, SLOW PRACTICE WORKS!
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