Essential Historical Recordings: Nathan Milstein was Born to Play the Fiddle

What Milstein brought to the music he performed was total clarity, when it came to both interpretive intent and violinistic articulation.

By Sasha Margolis

If ever a violinist was born to play the fiddle, it was Nathan Milstein. One of a seemingly endless line of spectacular Russian-Jewish violin players, Milstein came into the world three years after Jascha Heifetz, and four years before David Oistrakh. His musical offerings were distinct from both Heifetz’s high-voltage perfection and Oistrakh’s expressive breadth. What Milstein brought to the music he performed was total clarity, when it came to both interpretive intent and violinistic articulation, along with a penetrating intellect that could reduce pieces to their simplest state—and one of the most natural playing mechanisms ever seen.

Milstein was born in 1904 in Odessa, and studied there with Pyotr Stolyarsky, also Oistrakh’s teacher. At eleven, he journeyed to St. Petersburg, where he studied with Leopold Auer, also Heifetz’s teacher. Once Auer left for America as a result of the Revolution, Milstein was on his own. For a few years, he struggled in poverty. In 1921, he struck up a friendship with pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Soon, the two young musicians were promoted by Soviet cultural commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky as “Children of the Revolution,” and sent abroad to show off the new nation’s artistic accomplishments.


Milstein never looked back. He toured Europe and South America, and in 1929 made a debut in Philadelphia. There, a critic captured his playing perfectly: “…above and beyond his prodigious technical equipment is a brilliant mind molding the music into a coherent and symmetrical whole.” For the next fifty years, Milstein enjoyed an elite solo career. In 1948, his Mendelssohn Concerto performance became the first-ever long-playing record. In 1975, he won a Grammy for his solo Bach. He became an American citizen in 1943, but after WWII was based in London and Paris. He died in London in 1992.

Milstein spent many of his waking hours with his instrument. His friend Gregor Piatigorsky, with whom he and Horowitz played in a piano trio, wrote: “…he did not give an impression of practicing at all. He just played on the fiddle and with the fiddle. I only rarely found him without the violin in his hands.” Perhaps as a result, Milstein’s technique was incredibly relaxed and reliable—he was able to play at a high level into his eighties. He didn’t use a shoulder pad, believing that one ought to support the violin with the left hand. He also believed in bowing primarily from the shoulder, with minimal wrist motion.


Musically, Milstein was a classicist, emphasizing symmetries of phrasing and simplicity of structure. Comparing his interpretations with those of other violinists underlines how Milstein prioritized long phrase units over small changes of mood or color. He never played a note without musical direction, and could drive toward climaxes with incredible intensity. His vibrato, never a mark of idiosyncratic individuality in the manner of a Heifetz or Kreisler, could nonetheless raise the music to a feverish temperature. His intonation was on par with Heifetz’s, his fast passages stunningly clear, and his spiccato and ricochet almost startlingly articulate. His on-the-string bowing tended toward a certain fullness of articulation. He did not use an up-bow staccato, even where called for in the music.

Brahms concerto with Fistoulari and the Philharmonia

As for Milstein’s recordings: it may be said that in certain repertoire areas where the music can benefit from overt emoting and active styling, Milstein’s renditions might not satisfy the way a Heifetz’s or Menuhin’s will. Indeed, Milstein avoided certain pieces, such as Zigeunerweisen and the Sibelius Concerto, which he considered to be Heifetz’s property. In some other works, however, Milstein is close to peerless. Curiously, he criticized the Brahms Concerto as “a failed imitation of the Beethoven Concerto.” Despite this, his Brahms, with Fistoulari and the Philharmonia, is perhaps his finest concerto interpretation, relentlessly energetic and unencumbered by any musical clutter, so that the work is able to stand tall in all its mountainous glory. Much the same can be said of his Mendelssohn and Beethoven concerti, both with Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony. Of special note is the Goldmark Concerto, in which Milstein had no rival (recorded with Blech and the Philharmonia). In the Brahms Double with Piatigorsky, the two soloists, accompanied by Reiner and Philadelphia (known in the summer and billed here as the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra), blend perfectly in a towering display of great string playing.


Goldmark concerto with Blech and the Philharmonia

In his day, Milstein was considered, along with Henryk Szeryng, one of the great Bach players. Contemporary listeners exposed to historical practice may find Milstein’s Bach less satisfactory in its approach to sound and rhythm. But his attention to voicing remains exemplary in both of his complete sets, recorded in 1957 and 1975. Another of Milstein’s solo specialties was his own “Paganiniana,” which shows off the ricochet, trills, and sundry other weapons in his technical arsenal. Breathtaking is his Rimsky-Korsakov “Flight of the Bumblebee.” A more lyrical delight is his own arrangement of Liszt’s “Consolation No. 3.” Only one collaboration with Horowitz has been preserved: the Brahms D minor Sonata. Despite recording balance issues, it is an extraordinary performance.

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