Bach: Milstein vs. Szeryng

August 25, 2008 at 06:31 PM · What do you think makes many people enjoy the solo Bach recordings of Nathan Milstein and Henryk Szeryng more than others?

Replies (23)

August 25, 2008 at 09:05 PM · Milstein: I think it's his incredibly easy-sounding technique, so that the focus is on the music rather than how it's made. Also, he had a unique violin "voice" unlike any other, almost like a unique speaking voice. I've said this before, but I heard him play the Partita #2 in its entirety when he was 80-years-old, and it was stunning, better than his recordings.

Szeryng: Absolutely perfect playing and a conception of the music that goes right to the heart. Classy performance. I heard him once in person play the Fugue from Sonata #1 as an encore, and it was every bit as great as his recorded set.

And don't forget that the 3rd member of the Bach S&P's 3 Musketeers has got to be Grumiaux, which I like also.

I think, though, that you kind of get used to a performance, and it sort positions itself in your mind as the definitive performance. I think the Kaler version has just be issued on Noxos (or is that "Nexus"?), and if it's anything like his other solo works (the Caprices and the Ysaye Sonatas are spectacular), it ought to be every bit as good as the three icons above.


August 25, 2008 at 09:20 PM · What Sandy said. I, too, await Kaler's version on Naxos.

One thing that should be said is that there are now a number of very good versions by the A-415 crowd. I happen to prefer Lucy van Dael's on Naxos. I think that as they are around longer and more people listen to them, some of them will acheive icon status, although perhaps not quite the status we associate with the 3 Musketeers.

August 25, 2008 at 09:51 PM · If you guys have a Naxos subscription, you can listen to Kaler's S&P online!

I admire both Milstein and Szeryng's solo Bach, and unfortunately never got to hear either play them live. Although their artistry is quite individual, what they do have in common is the utter mastery and authority of the music.

I have two CDs of Milstein, the complete S&P from 1973, and the Sonatas from 1955. Didn't he do another set?

August 25, 2008 at 10:03 PM · Anne - I have a set of the Milstein complete S&P on EMI recorded from 1954-56. There are also two different Szeryng recordings. The most popular one was recorded in 1967 for DG. There is an earlier one which I have at home, but I have forgotten when he recorded it and for which label.

August 25, 2008 at 10:34 PM · Columbia Masterworks. I've it, and IMO is

better than the DGG

August 25, 2008 at 11:05 PM · I agree with Carlos that the Columbia one, recorded in 1965, is better than the DG Szeryng. Also, I do not particularly care for the 1954-56 Milstein.

August 26, 2008 at 12:59 AM · The reason why I love the style of these violinists, particularly in solo Bach, is because they find common, musical ground (in my opinion, of course!) between the non-vibrato yet harmonically superb sound of Bach's time and the contemporary, romantic sound of our (their) time. Just a thought!

August 26, 2008 at 01:33 AM · Sandy, did you ever own the Milstein on LP? I ask because in the early 80s I asked my teacher about them, and he said he'd never heard them. He was a respectable teacher in a good position. I owned them just by chance, only version I had. I think maybe Milstein;s biggest fame came along pretty late, maybe from chatter about him om the internet.

August 26, 2008 at 11:36 AM · Do you know the recording of the third

sonata by Menuhin in 1929,at 13 years old?

IMHO it was the best any child had ever made.

August 26, 2008 at 01:41 PM · Menuhin was actually the first violinist to record the complete S&Ps (available on Naxos Historical). His Chaconne is legendary.

August 26, 2008 at 01:44 PM · Probably because they are so musical. Milstein plays them very romantically, but they are so expressive.

August 26, 2008 at 03:13 PM · When I listen to Szeryng, I appreciate it with my verbal brain. As he plays I say to myself: "This was very skillful.....that was well done"....I feel almost guilty for not being stirred by such expert playing! When I listen to Milstein, my emotions are deeply touched. I'm so taken with the feeling of Bach's music, that the part of my brain that *talks* about music is silenced. During a Szeryng performance, my emotional brain is saying to my verbal brain; "Go ahead and jabber away, there's nothing here for me." During a Milstein performance my emotional brain is saying to my verbal brain: "Keep quiet, I want to enjoy the music!!"

August 26, 2008 at 03:27 PM · Jim:

I have had the earlier Milstein version, originally on records (long time ago) and more recently the CD set. I've heard his later recordings, but don't have a copy. When I bought those original old records back in the late 1950's, they were considered the "industry standard" (at that time).



August 26, 2008 at 03:59 PM · Maybe he meant he hadn't heard the later version and I misunderstood him. The one you had, on Capitol, had lots of note mistakes. There are editions you can buy that have those same mistakes; I don't know what the source for them was or what it says about scholarship factoring in violin performance in those days. Another good old Milstein on Capitol was the Kreutzer and I think #8, available on CD now. Also had "Milstein Miniatures" and one that I think was called "Encores." I think some of the stuff on those is available now, but not all of it.

August 26, 2008 at 05:19 PM · Milstein was one of Bach's most fervent advocates. Bach in the earlier 20th century was not as vital in the repertoire as it is now. Violinists like Szigeti, Heifetz (to an extent since he did record all of them) Menuhin, Milstein, Grumiaux and Szyerng were really responsible for bringing it back en vogue. Milstein usually performed Bach on most of his performances - he even would play a movement from a Sonata or Partita after a concerto as an encore. I think he may have one of the firsts to do so. Now, everyone does it.

I always felt that Milstein's playing had an improvisatory feel to it. He seems to always keep you guessing. Even in his performances he would change things constantly. Listen to different recordings of his Paganiniana and he is always tweeking and changing parts to the piece. This free-wheeling style compliments Bach very well. Much of Bach is ornaments of harmonic progressions and Milstein's style really captures the spirit.

August 27, 2008 at 10:19 PM · So what do you think is missing from today's players? One can't really say that(most)people don't play bach musically today. I personally think, at least for Milstein's bach, that the feel of spontaneity is what he has that others are lacking. Teachers should be teaching their students to have expressive and structured bach, but I think they sometimes force their ideas too much on others. If a student (or an adult) plays Bach the same way every time, then what's the purpose of performing it? He or she could just record it and be done with it forever.

August 27, 2008 at 10:57 PM · there is nothing missing in today's great players. great players across generations have individual approaches and therefore voices.

we just pick and choose sides to fit our fancy and carry out debates to fill time.

August 30, 2008 at 11:43 PM · way to kill the discussion. haha

August 31, 2008 at 01:55 AM · al ku wrote: "there is nothing missing in today's great players. great players across generations have individual approaches and therefore voices."

Do you feel that way about violin making as well? Were the violin makers of 1810 just as good as the violin makers of 1710, but different?

August 31, 2008 at 03:46 AM · There were only the two Milstein versions mentioned above. The 2nd Partitia was recorded in the 30s as well. There are some live concert versions as well.

I think the earlier one went out of the catalogue in the 60s when stereo was new and exciting. Mono recordings from the late 40s and 50s tended to get rerecorded or dropped. Some things were out of the catalogue for a long time. In fact, the 50s is about the most unrepresented decade out there, it seems to me.

I prefer the 1950s Milstein cycle. His age (70) shows some in the later one.

The earlier Szeryng one is Sony (old Columbia). I have never liked the sound quality on this recording, so I prefer the DG version. I think they were separated by only 3 or 4 years.


September 1, 2008 at 01:10 AM · Both the Nov. 10, '57 recital and the "last" recital (June '86) recordings feature Milstein playing the Chaconne. There's a difference in the quality of the playing in the later version, but, wow--this guy retained far more than he lost in his later years. It's pretty inspiring to hear.

September 1, 2008 at 01:53 AM · Did you ever notice the Last Recital CD doesn't have any trace of audience noise? What recital? I wish it was a straight-shooting recording.

September 1, 2008 at 02:48 AM · there is a wonderful performance by Szeryng of the Partita 2 and Sonata 3. It is Live from Moscow 1961. It is better than his studio recordings. He doesn't hold back and sings even more, and does things with the bow that i've never heard. I recommend this CD to everyone if you can find it!

Kaler's Bach is out. If I could compare it, its somewhat like szeryng's approach but with a little more "baroque flare" and ornamentation...some really neat stuff. Szeryng's and Kaler's is for sure my favorites

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