DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Historic Telecasts – Nathan Milstein, violin (1962-63)

Milstein: a Russian firecracker who illumined all the music he surveyed.

Published on May 29, 2009

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Historic Telecasts – Nathan Milstein, violin (1962-63)

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Historic Telecasts – Nathan Milstein, violin (1962-63)

Program: MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64; BACH : Prelude from Partita in E Major, BWV 1003; TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 Performers: Nathan Milstein, violin/Chicago Symphony Orchestra/ Walter Hendl
Studio: VAI DVD 4279
Video: 4:3 Black&White
Audio: PCM Mono
Extras: Milstein in conversation with Walter Hendl
Length: 71 minutes
Rating: ****

Taped through WGN, Chicago, 1962-1963, for their “Great Music from Chicago” series, the VHS edition of these collaborations in 2004 celebrated the centennial of the Russian virtuoso Nathan Milstein (1904-1992), whose towering technique and vibrant, sizzling tone made him to many auditors the world’s most consistently accomplished violinist. Those who recall Irving Kolodin’s article: “Nathan Milstein and the 6 Bs,” will know that Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, and Bruch are complemented by Better and Better. Milstein, armed with his violin, became a Russian firecracker that illumined all the music in its survey.

Host Jim Conway introduces the 1844 Mendelssohn Concerto, quoting a letter from the composer to violinist-dedicatee Ferdinand David. Hendl and Milstein launch into what proves to a volatile but salon-scale performance of the concerto, Milstein’s favoring a long bow and the long, fluid, melodic line. Cellist Frank Miller visibly leans into the accompanying phrases with his section, while the camera lingers over Milstein’s fingerboard, bow, and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand. The clarinet carries the secondary theme, and we move in sonata-form to a silken cadenza and beyond, to the flute and oboe in a superheated trio sonata with Milstein. Hendl’s excited tutti ends, and the bassoon manages the segue into the lyrical Andante, a song of exhilarated nobility. The nuances end quietly, and we witness Milstein’s cutting loose for the quicksilver finale, the camera trying, in vain, to catch the rhythms and pulsing power of the Allegro molto vivace.  

In the shadowed grays of a bare backdrop, Milstein plays the bold Prelude from the E Major Partita, an etude in perpetual motion and graded polyphony, augmented by a huge trill and polished, perfect intonation.  Edward Melkus once said of Milstein’s Bach, “it is different, virile, individual, always compelling.”

The Tchaikovsky Concerto opens with a rather subdued series of colors, but the scale expands the moment Milstein enters. His solo is long-lined, driven, rasping, with individual touches of orchestral hues from flute and French horns.  The large tuttis might strike some as perfunctory—it could be Hendl’s facial sang-froid—a splashy vehicle for the purpose of returning to Milstein’s variants on the original motifs. A biting, impassioned cadenza makes Tchaikovsky imitate Bach, the E string given a workout but apparently all in a day’s work, given Milstein’s serene command of the elements. The expressive Canzonetta melts in one’s musical mouth, the camera shooting from behind, over Milstein’s right shoulder. A sudden rush of color, and we are in the visceral throes of the Allegro vivacissimo, and Milstein is not kidding around. He takes the (judicious) cuts in  the score; but what he does play rouses, excites, urges us, if only because the articulation is so perfect, the notes executed with scathing clarity.  At the last chords, Milstein reveals a bit of human fatigue, shaking Hendl’s hand in open appreciation of their efforts.  Quite a show!

– Gary Lemco
 




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