Nathan Milstein violin Mendelssohn, Bruch & Tchaikovsky Biddulph

Nathan Milstein (violin)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op.64 (1844)
Max Bruch (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No.1 in G Minor, Op. 26 (1868)
Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1878)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/William Steinberg (Mendelssohn, Bruch)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch (Tchaikovsky)
rec. 1953
Biddulph 85035-2 [80]

No sooner are Milstein’s 1955-60 recordings of the Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bruch and Tchaikovsky concertos with Steinberg, Fistoulari and Barzin reissued on Urania than Biddulph contributes its own different trio, sourced from mono LPs and recorded in 1953.

I find it hard-to-impossible to be objective about the Mendelssohn-Bruch coupling, the first such coupling to be issued, as it was also my first experience of hearing the concertos, heard during my first term at university on a Capitol LP ‘borrowed’ from my father. Milstein made four commercial recordings of the Mendelssohn, the first with Bruno Walter on 78, then this one, followed by the Philharmonia/Barzin – which you’ll find on Urania – and finally the Vienna Abbado DG. Steinberg remained a favoured collaborator of Milstein’s and this pristine performance – so rarified in terms of expression, so suavely elastic in phrasing, so tonally pure and quite without pretentious gestures – sets a high bar for other soloists, limited only by the mono recording. 

The Bruch was his first LP too, following the 1942 New York collaboration with Barbirolli. It was followed by the Barzin which you’ll again find on Urania. There’s something admirable about Milstein’s focus on purely musical values in this work. His tonal lustre is unsugared, his sweetness refined, and his athleticism, when the music demands it, unquestioned. Steinberg is a highly effective conductor, ensuring the string layering in the finale is audible and that the horns are finely balanced throughout. If, perhaps, one might relish a more romanticised profile from the soloist, there’s no doubting the formidable qualities he brings wholly on his own terms.

The Tchaikovsky was recorded earlier in 1953 in Boston with Charles Munch when Milstein was still an RCA artist. It was his last recording for the company. His recordings of the work fit the template of the other two – a 78 set, in this case in Chicago with Frederick Stock, then this one followed by a stereo Steinberg in 1959 and Abbado in 1972. In this work Milstein shows numerous personal touches without ever becoming too individualistic, taking a more streamlined approach than either Heifetz or Elman espoused – to cite the polar extremes of Russian performance in this work. Portentous ritardandos or glistening finger position changes are alien to Milstein here. He plays with remarkable finesse and in the finale he is, if anything, even faster than Heifetz though with Milstein speed is a musical function and not necessarily a mechanical response.

Whether this particular three-concerto programme appeals will depend on how much Milstein you have, or need, and your tolerance for mono recording, given his remarkable consistency and the availability of stereo remakes. For me, though, this Mendelssohn-Bruch coupling, the core of the disc, is a first love and first loves tend to be impossible to forget.

Jonathan Woolf       

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