The Flying Inkpot – Mendelssohn, Bruch, Tchaikovsky violin concerti – Nathan Milstein – Various orchestra and conductors — Naxos

Felix MENDELSSOHN violin concerto in e minor
Max BRUCH violin concerto no. 1 in g minor
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY violin concerto  in D major

Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York, Bruno Walter
(rec.16 May 1945, Carnegie Hall

Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York, John Barbirolli
rec.12 Apr 1942, Carnegie Hall

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Friedrich Stock
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, 6 Mar 1940

respectively, all with Nathan Milstein, violin

Naxos Historical
79’10” Bargain price
Restoration by Mark Obert-Thorne

by Derek Lim

This amply filled disc would appear to be a bargain by any standards, and you certainly shouldn’t pass up, at this price especially, the chance to be better acquainted with one of the violinists with the longest-lived careers of the twentieth century, Nathan Milstein (1903-1992). But even the most perfect violinists have their off-days, and while the Bruch and Tchaikovsky catch Milstein on stunning form, the Mendelssohn, while note-perfect, is rather uninvolved, Milstein in one of his dour moods and unwilling, it seems, to take part in anything more than the surface notes. Curiously, since the aforementioned recording was the one recorded the latest (1945), the violin sound is wiry and inflexible. Nathan Milstein was always compared to Heifetz, and not surprisingly the latter always came off the cooler, more distant. Comparing their two accounts of the Mendelssohn available on Naxos (Heifetz’s with no less than Toscanini), you might rethink your opinion.

The Bruch is a totally different matter. Milstein said it was his favourite concerto, and one believes it, listening to this. There is a willingness to commit emotionally that I didn’t feel in the Mendelssohn, and a sensitivity and vulnerability that comes through. The recorded violin sound is much more listenable and sweeter, catching more nuances. Milstein also takes the trouble to inflect more and play more with his tempi, so everything seems that much more human. John Barbirolli (right), returning to the orchestra that caused him so much pain years ago, leads them admirably in roaring form and with characteristic sympathy for the soloist in a performance full of colour.

Milstein’s technique is at its formidable best in the Tchaikovsky, where he is abetted by Friedrich Stock and his Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the conductor in his last years as music director. There’s no secret as to who’s boss in this concerto. Milstein’s performance is commanding and full of his own personal touches, dramatic and impressive in the first movement (no “Auer cadenza” here) and lyrical and beautiful in the second movement, missing none of the dark undertones here. Milstein was quite free when he wanted to be, and his tempi and fingerings were liable to change, as one will notice. Milstein takes the last movement, performed with the “standard” Auer cuts, at some points at such a tremendous clip that you wonder when he’s going to slip up — he never does, of course. The coda is really helter-skelter exciting, with the orchestra and soloist challenging each other as to who can go faster, and the run-up to the final chord is truly thrilling.

Two wonderful performances and one imperfect then, but I think this disc will satisfy, otherwise. Mark Obert-Thorne’s transfers are vivid and full of body. The acoustic in the Bruch does change markedly about 4’20” into the second movement, but I’m quite sure there wasn’t much Mr Obert-Thorne could have done about it. Recommended, but you also shouldn’t pass up the Mendelssohn/Bruch coupling with the Philharmonia/Barzin on Classics for Pleasure, in much better sound and a favourite of mine.

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