Nathan Milstein, Master of Invention (I)

Some memories of a quiet magician. A film by Christopher Nupen

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Program notes

A film in two parts with one of the finest performing musicians of the 20th century, an artist whose career spanned 73 years and who won the admiration and respect of virtually every international musician of his time and the genuine affection of most of them.

Why master of invention? Because Nathan Mironovich Milstein's ability to invent new ways of doing things on the violin constantly impressed musicians, critics and the public alike thoughout his career.

"The most nearly perfect violinist of his time," The New York Times called him. At the age of eleven Nathan Milstein astonished Leopold Auer and Jascha Heifetz at his first appearance in Auer's class in St Petersburg; it prompted Auer to ask his pupils, "Well, how do you like that Black Sea technique?" and the rumour went around that Auer was so stunned that he had fainted. Not a bad start for an eleven year old performer.

Less than a year later, he surprised Alexander Glazounov by inventing changes to Glazounov's violin concerto at a rehearsal with the composer himself conducting. Milstein recounts that Glazounov, peering over his moon glasses, enquired, "Don't you like what I did?" The young violinist instantly modified his playing to accord with the score, but after the rehearsal Glazounov generously invited him to play it his own way at the forthcoming concert.

In the opening of the first of these two films, Nathan Milstein says to Pinchas Zukerman, "It's not enough to practise. Obviously you have to practise, but you have to invent ways of doing better." It is an impressive truth that right up to his last concert, at the age of 82, Nathan Milstein was constantly inventing ways of doing things better.

It is equally surprising and impressive that at the last concert, which provides a Major part of both these films, he was constantly modifying the fingering to accommodate an ailing first finger on his left hand. That was only possible because all through his career he had been modifying fingerings, even during actual concerts, in order to keep the music alive – an astonishing feat – and the musical results in Stockholm, as fresh as ever, betrayed no ailing finger.

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