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Pauline Lerner

Nathan Milstein, The 1946 Library of Congress Recording

September 14, 2006 at 9:36 AM


After reading lots of rave reviews of the recording Nathan Milstein, The 1946 Library of Congress Recital, I just had to buy it. Now that I’ve listened to it a few times, I’m raving about it.

Nathan Milstein was one star in an awesome constellation of twentieth century musicians from Russia. He began his violin studies with Pyotr Stolyarsky, who also taught David Oistrakh, and, at the age of 11, he became a student of Leopold Auer, whose pupils include Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman. Later he played and toured with Vladimir Horowitz, first in Russia and then in the United States and elsewhere.

One of the pieces on the CD is the Bach Sonata in G minor. I can never get enough of this piece, especially when Milstein plays it. For years, I listened to Milstein’s 1975 recording of the Bach S and P, which I still have on vinyl. When I got tired of using a phonograph, I stopped listening to it for several years. Then I bought it again on CD. As soon as I heard it, I remembered it as Milstein. His playing of this piece is strictly his own. I’d recognize it any where, and I love it. I get a sense of firmness and solidity at the core of the music, no matter how sweet, light, and soaring it is. The Library of Congress recording, made decades before 1975, sounds just like Milstein. He has his own musical voice, and I love it.

The recording has two of Milstein’s transcriptions/arrangements, the famous Paganiniana and the Chopin Nocturne in C# minor. Writing transcriptions is an art in itself, as Heifetz showed. To write a really good transcription, the artist has to understand the spirit of the piece and transfer it to the unique personality of the violin. Milstein did it beautifully. I’m especially impressed with his Chopin transcription since Chopin’s music is so very pianistic. In Milstein’s hands, however, it sounds equally violinistic. It expresses the spirit of the piece as only a violin can.

Although Milstein sometimes performed as a soloist with an orchestra, he played recitals much more often, and he frequently played concertos with a pianist taking the place of an orchestra. This practice was common at times in the past but very uncommon now. As in transcriptions, the heart and soul of the music has to be expressed in a different musical voice. On this recording, Milstein plays the Mendelssohn Concerto with a piano instead of an orchestra. The arrangement is artful, and Milstein has that very characteristic Milstein sound. It is so sweet that it melts me down as soon as it starts, but it carries the same sense of firmness that his playing of Bach does.

This recording is very Milstein and very beautiful. The music wraps around me and stays with me wherever I go, even when I’m not listening to it.

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