h o m e  |  a r t  |  d i s c o g r a p h y  |  f o r u m

While not having the time and energy to do research of my own, I can only excerpt what others have written about Mr. Milstein. Until I have more materials, the follows will have to suffice.

Beginning of excerpt by David Foil

On November 5, 1979, in the pleasant autumn of his long and miraculous career, Nathan Milstein played a recital at Carnegie Hall as he had done for dozens of New York Seasons. This particular evening was like many others in Milstein's experience. Someone who was present called it a "a fiddlers' convention."

"Everybody seemed to be there," the critic Harold C. Schonberg noted in his review in The New York Times, "from Joseph Fuchs and Itzhak Perlman down to every orchestra violinist in town who had a free night, and every young violinist out of Juilliard, Curtis, or wherever."

They were there, of course, to savor Milstein's still glowing and amazingly vital artistry. They were also there to pay homage. For the twilight of Milstein's career, however sublime, was inevitably the twilight of the golden age: here, it seemed, was the last magnificent exponent of the "Russian" school of violin playing that reached its zenith in the virtuosos who emerged, just after the turn of the 20th century, from the St. Petersburg studio of the violinist and teacher Leopold Auer. By 1979, Milstein was the only one of them still performing. Jascha Heifetz had retired, with typical aplomb, into an imperial silence. Mischa Elman, Toscha Seidel, and Efrem Zimbalist were dead. A dozen other extraordinary but lesser known Auer pupils had become quaint memories. Milstein alone remained and, on that night in 1979, he could still make transcendent drama of the Chaconne of the Bach D minor Partita, and he could still find the subtle, sophisticated tension in the Frank A major Sonata.

The temptation was, and is, to view Milstein in wistful, simply symbolic terms -- a nostalgic figure, a paragon of a vanishing grand style. It is neither that simple nor that sentimental. Throughout his life, Milstein resisted labels,

Young Nathan Milstein
and his playing evolved far beyond them, especially in the mature performances captured in these recordings. In fact, he might have been the least identifiably "Russian" of the great Russian virtuosos. Certainly his conception of music was shaped by his training, and his playing bore evidence of the "Russian" style that teachers and players today might consider old-fashioned. But Milstein frequently belittled the direct influence of all three of his teachers. (Indeed, Auer made no direct mention of Milstein in his autobiography.) His playing did not conform to any single, established style or approach. It did not throb and weep in the crowd-pleasing manner of Elman's, nor did it reduce audiences to hysteria, as did Heifetz's. His technique was stupendous. His refined and aristocratic tone could indeed be ravishing. And the robustness and vigor in his playing were palpable, and they could thrill. But none of these elements suffered at the expense of the others, and none seemed exclusively to be the focus when he played. They were joined with a remarkable artistic will and an ever-intensifying musicality that made Milstein very nearly unique. Certainly he was the most elegant and impeccable virtuoso of his time.

But hyperbole always cheats such an artist. The desire to pay Milstein the ultimate compliment, for instance, runs headlong into the formidable fact of Heifetz, and it illustrates the folly of words such as "best" or "greatest." The violinist and teacher Boris Schwarz believed that it was "only a quirk of fate" that Heifetz's renown so outstripped Milstein's. Another scholar of the violin, Henry Roth, disagreed, citing Heifetz's opulent tone and dashing, larger-than-life artistic personality as the key to his popular success -- qualities Milstein neither sought nor seemed to need.

Nathan Milstein at age of eighteen in 1921
"He could well have been the most nearly perfect violinist of his time," Harold Schonberg concluded in The New York Times, in the wake of Milstein's death on December 21, 1992. "Jascha Heifetz had a more electrifying technique, but there were those who considered him, rightly or wrongly, too cool and objective. Joseph Szigeti, who may have had a more probing musicianship and a wider repertory, never had the tone or technique of Mr. Milstein, who was able to bring everything together in a way matched by very few violinists of his time."

If Milstein's lighthearted, sometimes, even flippant memoirs are to be believed, his first violin lessons (at the age of 4) were intended primarily to keep him out of trouble in the neighborhood. He was born into a bourgeois Jewish family in Odessa on December 31, 1903, and his swiftly emerging talent was encouraged by his family, particularly his mother. Perhaps his most important early influence was Pyotr Stolyarsky, the Odessa teacher whose students included Leonid Kogan and David Oistrakh. Through Stolyarsky, Milstein made his first big impression, at the age of 10, playing the Glazunov Violin Concerto under the composer's direction. Within two years, the boy had won a place in Auer's studio at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he remained until Auer departed for Norway.

Milstein reached manhood and the first crest of maturity just as the Russian Empire collapsed in the face of the Communist revolution. His career flourished in the new Soviet Union, where he was considered "a child of the Soviet revolution" and -- with the blithe good will and good fortune that seem to have been motifs in his life -- escaped serious deprivation or suffering. He was playing in Kiev when he first encountered Vladimir Horowitz, who was to become a lifelong friend. Horowitz and his sister heard all of Milstein's Kiev concerts and invited him to tea, which went so well that he stayed for dinner. The next day, he came to tea again and when the young Horowitzes suggested he just move in, he did so, staying for three years.

Vladimir Horowitz and Nathan Milstein
Milstein and Horowitz began playing together throughout the Soviet Union, where they became something of a sensation. And the age was ripe for sensations. One can only imagine the impact of a single 1923 concert in St. Petersburg, conducted by Glazunov, in which Milstein's own dazzling performance of the Glazunov Violin Concerto was inevitably overshadowed by the young Horowitz's playing of the Liszt E-flat Major Concerto and the Rachmaninov Third.

A year later, a friendly government official pressed both Milstein and Horowitz to accept special passports to go abroad and perform, as cultural ambassadors for the Soviet Union. Neither particularly wanted to leave, but the timing of their departure was fateful, and it was a complete break. Within a few years, the "Soviet spring" that had flowered in the wake of the Revolution had been brutally crushed by Stalin, and the long totalitarian nightmare began. Horowitz would not return until 1986. Milstein never did.

In the West, Horowitz was an immediate sensation -- with his dramatic presence and grand manner, he looked and acted the part, while the compact, dark-haired Milstein did not. In 1926, the young violinist sought out the Belgian virtuoso Eugene Ysaye. Ysaye specifically taught him almost nothing, but their encounter seems to have affected Milstein. If his success was slower in coming than Horowitz's, it was sure and solid when it did come, and over the years he handled it with much more equanimity than his mercurial friend. Milstein's successful American debut came in 1929, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski (again in the Glazunov concerto), with an acclaimed New York debut the following season.

Vladimir Horowitz, Nathan Milstein, Gregor Piatgorsky, Arturo Toscanini & Bernadino Molinari on the Italian Cruise Liner Rex
Milstein became a New Yorker in the 1930s and an American citizen during World War II. His presence on the recital and concert stages became a fact of American musical life -- when Arturo Toscanini conducted the final concert of his tenure with the New York Philharmonic in 1936, he asked that Milstein be the soloist -- and he began a long and fruitful recording career. After the war, Milstein returned to Europe, living primarily in London. As cosmopolitan and refined a man as he was an artist, he seems to have been largely untouched by personal tragedy or anguish. His noble and dignified bearing in performance (not unlike that of Heifetz) created a sense of awe, but his friends and family delighted in his warm, convivial personality. Milstein never saw the need to share that with the public, and he was appalled by the demands of modern celebrity. His playing remained immune to the typical ravages of time or other factors, such as arthritis, that can cut short a virtuoso's career. He taught master classes periodically at the Juilliard School in New York and in Switzerland, an his diffident manner stood in stark contrast to the curdling severity of Heifetz, who seemed to frighten away as many students as he attracted. Milstein's performing career continued its remarkable progress until 1987, when a broken arm forced the 83-year-old violinist to retire.

Milstein once said that the qualities an artist needs are temperament, personality, and character. The cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, his friend and colleague, wrote that he never caught Milstein playing scales or exercises -- that, in fact, he gave the impression of never practicing -- but that the violin was rarely out of Milstein's hands.

Gregor Piatgorsky, Vladimir Horowitz and Nathan Milstein
Milstein was as dismissive of talk about his technique as he was of speculation about his training. His playing and interpretations varied from season to season, recording to recording: he wrote and re-wrote his own cadenzas for the Brahms and Beethoven concertos. Milstein chose his repertoire carefully and early, according to his own taste, and rarely deviated from it, playing the Bach solo violin literature when few did and apparently having no use for the de rigeur violin concertos of Sibelius, Elgar, Paganini, or Vieuxtemps. Throughout his career, critics carped about what his playing lacked while praising its brilliance, and he transcended those complaints by maintaining and continually sharpening the focus of his art. Piatigorsky summed up Milstein the artist as he fondly took his measure of Milstein the man in his autobiography Cellist. For the two are, it seems, inseparable.

"His quick movements, lively eyes and shiny black hair, and his strong medium-sized frame, suggested youth that would stay with him forever," Piatgorsky wrote. "So spontaneous and harmless was he that one hated to be critical of anything he said ... His violin belonged to his body no less than his arms and legs ... Nathan could be only what he was, a marvelous violinist ... He was self-sufficient, unperturbed and always neat; his friends, his surroundings, his violin, his exquisite cashmere sweaters, all existed to augment his pleasure."

-- David Foil

h o m e  |  a r t  |  d i s c o g r a p h y  |  f o r u m