Ludwig van Beethovens: Yehuhi Menuhin, violin
Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
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Johannes Brahms: Nathan Milstein, violin
Philharmonia Orchestra/Anatole Fistoulari
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Beethoven's Violin Concerto was written for Franz Clement who premièred it under the direction of the composer. Clement was a child prodigy who was exploited by his parents and at age nine had toured most of Europe. At fourteen he attracted the attention of Beethoven who was so impressed he wrote the child a letter of praise. Later they worked together after the less-than-impressive opening of Fidelio and the concerto was the fruit of the association. In 1805 an article in Allegmeine musikalische Zeitung describes Clement's playing as having "… an incandescent delicacy, neatness and elegance, and extremely delightful tenderness and purity… "* I can think of no better way to describe Milstein's playing.
I think Milstein was one of the greatest violinists of the last century. He studied with Auer, as did his more famous contemporary Heifetz. The difference, however, is one of musical beauty versus virtuosity. I confess that I have only one disc of Heifetz and am not sure where it is at the moment. I listened to his music making when I first began studying classical music some years ago and I decided that he was a lot like Horowitz, all style and little substance. Now I know that is a generalization, but I have to be honest about my own musical biases. To me Milstein is simply a better "musician". He seems more interested in exploring the music than impressing us with his digital talent.
Okay, so much for editorializing. Beethoven was a shadow for Brahms, like a spirit hanging over the shoulder. Beethoven's Violin Concerto, not unlike the "Eroica" stands apart from everything that precedes it. There is nothing in Mozart that even hints at what Beethoven created. It is sui generis.
After a long orchestral introduction "… the violin, with quiet authority rises from the receding orchestra, and by way of a light-footed mini-cadenza leads us to the return of the first theme, including the five drum taps." As I put it, the violin emerges from the orchestral fabric and soars into the stratosphere. Okay, that is a bit hyperbolic, but only a bit. Two things are obviously important to the opening of the piece, the orchestral development and then the opening solo from the violin. Here there are a couple of observations. First, Furtwängler is much more dramatic, the Philharmonia Orchestra is obviously superior to Pittsburgh. The sound is deeper, the performance is much slower but there is no lack of tension. Furtwängler brings more character to the entire piece than does Steinberg. At the same time Steinberg's self-effacing approach does provide a performance that supports Milstein. Frankly, I prefer Furtwängler, but Milstein did like working with Steinberg more than any other conductor. Now we go to the opening solo. Here Milstein surpasses Menuhin completely. His opening note emerges from the fabric of the orchestra whereas Menuhin pauses just a hair, which disturbs the flow of the piece; it is almost jarring. From there on it sounds to me like Furtwängler and Menuhin are not quite together in the interpretation, almost at sixes-and-sevens. My notes repeatedly refer to Milstein's "sweet" sound or elegance. Milstein feels more inside the music and this is also apparent in the cadenzas, which he wrote himself. The second movement is one of the most sublime things I have heard. Here, again, Milstein is at one with the music while Menuhin is playing it but the music doesn't have the ethereal quality to it that reminds me of the Missa Solemnis. The folk like swing to the final movement dances in Milstein's hands. I am not going to make any more criticisms of Menuhin but will say that I prefer Milstein here, too. Furtwängler and Menuhin's recording is ranked among the best from many sources, but I will listen to Milstein any day instead.
Next up is the other pinnacle of violin concertos, Brahms'. Both works are in D but there the comparisons end. Brahms is more lyrical, more autumnal. In a word, it is more contemplative. Again I would suggest that whilst Heifetz's athletic virtuosity may impress you with its digital dexterity, ultimately it is emotionally empty. Martin Bookspan rendered this same observation. Here the comparison is not so much with Milstein as with the conductors. Milstein is much the same in both. The sweet tone is darker than in the Beethoven; once again he wrote his own cadenzas and it is obvious that he is making music and not just playing it. The orchestral backdrop, however, is decidedly different. Steinberg is self-effacing once again, but Fistoulari is much to be preferred. He gives the whole piece more character by providing an interpretation that is more dramatic. Once again, the Philharmonia is a vastly superior orchestra to the Pittsburgh. I do wish that EMI had decided to use this stereo version over the monaural one. While the GROC remastering is always excellent, the sound on the Full Dimensional Sound series has depth and a glow to it that is far superior to the monaural disc.
So there it is. A mixed bag perhaps but I would recommend the GROC release though I am not sure it is one of the Great Recordings of the Century. I should mention that this listening experience was a real ear-opener for me in the case of the Beethoven. I now appreciate it much more than before. Learning is fun and beats the alternative.
* I came across this interesting information in Martin Bookspan's 1972 edition of 101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers. It was one of the first books I read when I started to study classical music in 1976. Information also comes from Michael Steinberg's book The Concerto.
Copyright © 2002, Robert Stumpf II