Obituary: Nathan Milstein
Wednesday 23 December 1992
WHEN the great violinist Josef Szigeti was on his first visit to Russia in 1924, Leopold Auer's daughter, Nadine, invited him to her house to hear a fabulously gifted young man who seemed diffident about his impending trip across the borders to Berlin. Szigeti assured him that Europe was waiting for such artists with enthusiasm. His forecast was not far short of the mark.
Nathan Milstein was born in 1903 in Odessa into a family who loved music but had no history of professional musicians. He showed early talent for the violin but his first lesson with a local teacher came to an abrupt halt when wrong notes were met with physical punishment. He was more fortunate when at the age of seven he entered the Music School at Odessa under Pyotr Stolyarksy whose methods were more conventional.
By the age of 12, Milstein was accepted into Auer's class at the Conservatoire in St Petersburg, and it was there that he considered he learnt more than at any other period of his life. He remained grateful all his life to Auer because he allowed his pupils to develop their own personalities. Certainly, out of the dozen or so internationally famous violinists that Auer produced including Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbalist, Toscha Seidel and others, all were completely different, not only as human beings but also as violinists. Milstein once told me: 'I knew others who were better musicians than Auer, who knew much more. But this is not always a good thing. They dictate every point of technique and impose their own style upon their pupils with the result that they've not produced a single soloist at international level. At a certain stage it is not enough just to practise. You must develop your technique, of course, but violin playing is what you do with your technique - if you have a teacher who knows too much you will never find your own way. When you are concertising on your own you must know yourself where you are going.'
At the outbreak of the Revolution in 1917, Auer fled the country, so the 13- year-old Milstein had the opportunity to put his ideas into practice. Despite the social and political chaos, he was engaged for concerts arranged by the Ministry of Education in and around Odessa, and in 1920 made his solo orchestral debut playing Glazunov's concerto under the composer.
In 1922 he met the pianist Vladimir Horowitz, fresh from the Conservatoire in Kiev. As solo artists they gave a series of highly successful concert tours in Russia, eventually appearing in Moscow. Anatoly Lunacharsky, then Commissar of Fine Arts and Education, wrote a glowing review in a Moscow newspaper which brought about many further engagements. Although they made a great deal of money there was nothing to spend it on. 'We gave it to the beggars who sat on every corner. They soon got to know us and waited for our money.'
In 1925 Milstein and Horowitz were given permission to undertake a European tour, to show the capitalists what gifted young performers they had in the Soviet Union. Milstein considered this as a landmark in his musical life. 'I didn't know then that I would never go back. I didn't run away. I left with a Soviet passport and just never returned.'
Their greatest success was in Spain, followed by a tour of South America where they gave some 56 concerts, performing every two days. When he was in his late seventies he told me: 'It was a very good life. In the late afternoon we would play bridge and sometimes spend the whole day in the mountains, returning to the hotel half an hour before the concert. We never worried about performances. Today I can't eat lunch if I have to play in the evening.'
From this point they began giving successful concerts all over Europe and occasionally formed a trio with the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky who had also recently emigrated from Russia. It was during this time that Milstein also took the opportunity to have some advanced study with Ysaye at his summer school at Le Zoute in Belgium. It was, though, Milstein's meeting with the conductor Leopold Stokowski that he made his American orchestral debut playing the Glazunov concerto in Philadelphia in October 1929. The critic from the Evening Bulletin wrote that the soloist was 'a young, dark Russian capable of magical things upon a violin' and that 'above and beyond his prodigious technical equipment is a brilliant mind moulding the music into a coherent and symmetrical whole.' For the next 10 years Milstein repeated this success throughout the US and Canada and in 1943 he took out US citizenship.
Milstein first appeared before a British audience at the Queen's Hall in November 1932 playing the Brahms and Tchaikovsky concerts under Malcolm Sargent. Next morning the Times praised his performance in that he had 'missed none of the more obvious points in the Brahms concerto . . . his clear cantilena, his organ-like double stopping, his impeccable octaves in the finale . . . proclaimed him to be a violinist of high order; but in the end we found we had listened more to Milstein than to Brahms, and while he was playing his cadenza we wondered whether he had forgotten all about Brahms.'
Four years later, at a Wigmore Hall recital, the Musical Times critic wrote that he performed Vivaldi's sonata in A major with 'a fire and precision that fairly caught one's breath, just because it breathed life into music that until now had seemed to be dry bones. This was the Vivaldi whom Bach admired: not the pedagogue in whose likeness most people present the old Venetian.' But he was less than enthusiastic about the Beethoven Sonata in G major Op 30, not that his execution left anything to be desired, but because 'some of Beethoven's thoughts . . . are still to Milstein a closed book'. This is an interesting comment on the violinist who was to become accepted as one of the great interpreters of Beethoven's violin concerto. His recording with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under William Steinberg is still regarded as a classic.
After the Second World War, Milstein returned to Europe and resided for many years in Paris, finally settling in London where he lived until his death. As a leading international soloist he appeared in almost every country in the world and made hundreds of recordings.
Milstein long ago transcended the early criticism of his artistic ability. Right up to his last appearances in his early eighties he had a reputation for performances that were the antithesis of such an approach, although his playing remained spirited and vigorous. His recording of the Goldmark concerto is one of the many living examples of his integrity in playing that is stylish yet as scrupulous in attention to detail. With Milstein there were no gimmicks, no tricks, and yet the music became exceptional because of his innate musicianship and honest playing: it was always the music that predominated, not the personality of Milstein.
He never enjoyed a work in quite the same way twice and when he reviewed his old recordings he felt that he had developed in the direction that the music required, especially in his approach to Bach which had changed considerably. He told me: 'I played the Bach sonatas 20 years ago . . . but the approach was less improvisational, more playing. I know now that Bach is always improvisational.' Milstein also considered it extremely important to build up some sort of contact with a composer before attempting to play his music, and would pass on to his pupils the advice that Auer gave to him as a young boy: 'Don't practise with your fingers. Practise with your head.'
Milstein had firm views on the past and its relation to our musical present. 'Not everyone who goes to concerts is devoted to the music, it is more of a social occasion. In the 18th and 19th centuries they listened to music because they loved and understood it. Take Beethoven for instance - he went to people's houses to play quartets, which is how the music came to be written. When you had an elite you had an example for the people who looked up to those who provided works of art. All the artistic treasures we admire today were brought about by these people; the popes and the Medicis. If it were not for them we would have no idea of what happened in the past. In order to recapture this love of music and the need for great artists, we must bring back the kings and princes. We must have an elite. Today we have no group whom we can respect spiritually, and we are losing ground all the time.'
Milstein remained active right up to his death and divided his time between his homes in Paris and London, giving masterclasses each year in Switzerland.
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