Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Bruch (no. 1) Violin Concertos on one disc ... what more could you want? That question becomes more pertinent still when the soloist is one Nathan Milstein.
It is down to the excellent record company specialising in historical re-releases, Biddulph to provide this dream disc for colonists.
Milstein (1904-92) is a player of natural grace and elegance. Everything is refined, and yet he can play with huge passion. The first two concertos we hear were released together on a Capitol LP (P 8243):
Milstein's account of the Mendelssohn E-Minor Concerto (Op. 64), recorded in the Syria Mosque, Pittsburgh on November 28, 1953, is one of my favourites. William Steinberg conducts the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in a performance of such refinement and lyricism it dominates the catalogue to this day
It is as much the combination of Milstein and Steinberg that makes this performance: in the famous slow movement, in particular, the supports the give-and-take, is utterly remarkable. The finale scampers miraculously, populated by Midsummer Night's Dream elfin spirits.
Milstein made four recordings of the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky Concertos and three of the Bruch (!) - a luxury not afforded to any violinist today, surely. The performances here are of Milstein's second in all three cases (the first recordings were released on 78 rpm discs).
Here is a transfer of the performance that isn't Biddulph, unfortunately, but allows you to hear Milstein's mastery. The Biddulph transfer, though, is stunningly good: clear, and Milstein's tone comes across beautifully,
Certainly, this is some way from Insula Orchestra's historically informed performance in Paris reported on by Classical Explorer (with Carolin Widmann as soloist), but Milstein is unforgettable. A performance to cherish for a lifetime.
The performance of the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 in G-Minor,, which follows next on the disc, is no less impressive. Recorded on the same day, this is a high-voltage performance, with the Milstein/Steinberg relationship in full flower. The Pittsburghers blaze with energy in the first movement (marked “Vorspiel,” or Prelude) while the Adagio begins a cushion of hushed introspection rising to an echt-Romantic peak. There is an almost prayer-like aspect to the string statements from the Pittsburgh orchestra. The sheer grit of the finale is irresistible, too. . Here's a transfer freely available on YouTube, but do seek out the Biddulph, the engineering standard is a joy:
Last, and by no means least, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, now with the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch and first released on RCA (LM 1760). Also from 1953 (March this time, the 23rd in Boston Symphony Hall), this was Milstein's last recording for RCA. He had started with Columbia I the 1930s; he moved to RCA after World War II. In 1953 he moved to the new Capitol label, later aquired by EMI.
This is a masterly account of Tchaikovsky's great concerto. If the orchestra sounds slightly harsh in the more robust first movement tuttis. it is a small price to pay A touchstone with this concerto (any concerto, some to that) is whether the cadenza is as gripping as what surrounds it. Milstein is absolutely mesmeric, the join back with orchestra impeccable.
The slow movement is a stunning outpouring of emotion, matching that in, particularly, the Mendelssohn above. It is especially impressive when both violinist and conductor take the music down to the barest whisper, and it is testament to the quality of the transfer that nothing gets in the way of one's enjoyment.
The finale is taken at quite a lick: both Milstein and Munch take the “vivacissimo” indication to heart, and how the music shines as a result.
Here's another transfer so you can hear this performance immediately, but again I urge you to invest in Biddulph ...
There are of course a plethora of recordings of each these concertos. How marvellous to have all three on one disc in the hands of an utter master, though. All three performances convinced me, as I listened, that this performance was the one for the ages, the one that would remain forever on my shelves (yes, I still prefer physical product to streaming).
As a supplement, there is a brilliant coupling of Milstein in Glazunov, Dvořák and two of Mozart's smaller pieces for violin and orchestra on Naxos Historical (see my review on Musicweb International here). I should point out this Naxos disc is a mere £4.99 at the link below.