MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64; DVORAK: Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53 – Nathan Milstein, violin/ Swiss Festival Orchestra/ Igor Markevitch (Mendelssohn)/ Ernest Ansermet (Dvorak) – Audite 95.646, 57:16 (9/7/18) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Odessa-born Nathan Milstein (1904-1992) made his debut at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland on 20 August 1949, performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto.  In the present performance of 12 August 1953, Milstein appears with fellow Ukranian, the conductor Igor Markevitch, sharing a driven performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto that avoids something of the sentimentality that marked his recording with Bruno Walter in New York from 21 June 1948, listed as the first CBS LP (ML 4001).  Milstein had made a career of the Mendelssohn, even having boasted, after a performance with Arturo Toscanini, of having proceeded to beat colleague Jascha Heifetz in ping-pong!

Portrait Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn

The first movement Allegro molto appassionato emerges more like an assault in double exposition between two rival forces than as an exercise in Apollinian grace.  Markevitch, too, if he might be considered a Mendelssohn “specialist,” preferred the shades of the First Walpurgis Night to the pleasantries of the Italian Symphony.  Markevitch (1912-1983), nonetheless, commands a noble pulse in the ensuing Andante, where Milstein can relent from the surging, forward momentum, although each period and cadence of the melodic line literally explodes with visceral passion in double or triple stops.  Beauty deeply touched by a lyrical sense of tragedy reigns as the dominant affect.  The final movement does permit a skittish good humor, with the support of the woodwinds to complement the solo’s facile leaps and runs. Milstein plays the Allegro molto vivace as a perpetual motion exercise that alternately bounces and weaves its way through the march tune that culminates in fairy figures akin to the ubiquitous Midsummer Night’s Dream antics. The resonant “Bravo!” at the coda speaks for a host of enchanted spectators at the Lucerne Kunsthaus.

Milstein has an unlikely Dvorak collaborator (6 August 1955) in the “Gallic specialist” Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969), virtually an unknown “sound” in Czech music, especially this glowing work of 1880, which had been meant for the virtuoso Joseph Joachim, who, although he helped edit the score never performed it publically. Milstein would record the Dvorak Concerto three times – with Dorati, Steinberg, and Burgos – and here Milstein proves himself in lyric and assertive form, as required. After the brief orchestral tutti, Allegro non troppo, the declamatory orchestra yields to the primacy of the solo part, with interjections from winds, pizzicato strings, flute, and horn. Typically, Milstein’s espressivo passages have lilt and power, and Ansermet’s responses can be just as potent.  The truncated cadenza leads to a Quasi moderato transition to the gorgeous second movement, Adagio, ma non troppo, rife with Dvorak’s capacity to insert passing melodic and supporting lines – as in the flute riffs – other composers can only envy.

Portrait of Antonin Dvorak

Antonin Dvorak

After the distinctly martial sequences—featuring a pungent French horn—Dvorak extends the melodic line as a kind of variation rife with trills in which Milstein’s tone luxuriates in its own aura. The combination of Milstein and French horn choir at the coda has something special to say. The last movement Finale: Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo presents us a rondo informed by folk dances, a furiant that alternates duple and triple meter and a D minor dumka.  Ansermet’s Swiss orchestra seems intent to evoke the rustic power of the rhythms in a most acerbic, pungent style. In the middle episode, the effect conjures up bagpipes and the hurdy-gurdy. So razor-sharp lies Milstein’s seamless intonation that any “lulling” or “complacent” sense of his part not only dissipates but suffers obliteration. Before the last utterance of the rondo theme, tympani and harp manage to contribute to the plastic, festive sounds.  At the last chords, listen for yourself what the audience thinks.

In an interview with Milstein, Pinchas Zukerman asked him whom he considered the greatest conductor Milstein had worked with: the instantaneous answer: Furtwaengler.  “In the Brahms or the Beethoven?” queried Zukerman. “The Dvorak,” short and to the point.

—Gary Lemco