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Nathan Milstein in Portrait [DVD] [Import]
Nathan Milstein was one of the 20th century's greatest violinists, his technique polished to perfection, his musical interpretations profound. He was also unique among star performers in being relatively publicity-shy. So Christopher Nuppen's "portrait" offers a rare, valuable glimpse into the man's personality and his penetrating observations about his instrument and music, along with an abundance of anecdotes and reminiscences reflecting his 73 years of public performances, itself an amazing record. In that time, he knew a galaxy of legendary composers and musicians. A student of Leopold Auer, he was friends with Glazunov, Rachmaninoff, Ysaye, Horowitz, and many others who figure in the stories he tells in this documentary's interview segments. Riveting too, are Milstein's stories about concertizing in the early days of the Soviet Union, giving concerts in factories to workers who didn't appreciate Bach. It all adds up to a fascinating film which includes his last concert, recorded by Swedish television, that features sterling performances of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata and the Bach Chaconne.
The interview materials are interspersed with filmed performances of short works that show off Milstein's dazzling command of his instrument. Milstein's reputation for severity is belied by the warm, humorous man we see spinning amusing stories and well-thought-out observations. In conversation with Pinchas Zuckerman, he speaks of the importance of "invention," the need of performers to constantly reinvent their approach to a piece by such means as changing their fingering to discover new ways of keeping their interpretations fresh. This is illustrated by the concert film on disc 2, when finger pain forced him to revise his left-hand fingering with no discernable effect on the technical or musical results. In itself, this was a remarkable feat for a violinist who, at 86, was already playing at the highest level at an age when violinists have been long retired because the inroads of age have shredded their technique. To Milstein, though, it was nothing special. He says he often modified his fingering, even on stage during a performance.
Nuppen, whose previous films sometimes go too far in trying to show musicians as ordinary folks and which sometimes slip into the hagiographic mode, is more restrained here, as fits his subject, a great musician whose life and art are so well portrayed in this fine documentary. --Dan Davis
If you are violinist, you really have to own this program. Never have I seen any other violinist (not even Heifetz) with such an efficient technique. Milstein had literally eliminated all extraneous left hand movements from playing the violin. It is wondrous to watch him playing the Sarasate Introduction and Tarantella. In the fast Tarantella you see his fingers seem to move not too quickly at all, while the notes fly by at a very rapid clip. Astounding.
The first disc contains some conversations and interviews that Christopher Nupen conducted with Milstein. There's really nothing provocative here. Milstein was widely known as a simple and humble artist, and he does nothing to refute that statement in the conversations. My only real complaint is that there are no English subtitles available; sometimes it is difficult to understand Milstein. Of course, there is also the surreal "chat" between Pinchas Zukerman and Milstein. Zukerman does his best Chris Farley impression, serving up softball questions to a Milstein that almost seems annoyed by the whole process. What little insight and/or anecdotes that is provided is basically rehashed from Milstein's memoirs "From Russia to the West" by Solomon Volkov. If you are a serious Milstein or Violin fan, try to find a copy of the book instead of watching this video.
The second disc contains complete performances of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata and the Bach Chaconne from Milstein's last public recital. By that time, Milstein was in his 80's and almost undoubtedly the greatest octogenarian violinist virtuoso of all time :). Sadly, the other pieces he played in the recital, most notably the Sarasate Introduction and Tarantelle, are only shown in clips during disc 1. I was hoping this DVD would just show the film for the entire recital, but the Kreutzer and Chaconne are a good compromise. There is also a little section of the Milstein conversations where he opens up about the Chaconne. This truly does provide insight into the artist that perhaps played the Chaconne better than anyone ever has.
In summary, get this DVD for the wonderful recital footage of the Kreutzer and the Chaconne. Watch the first disc for comic relief (why did Pinchas Zukerman feel the need to wear aviator sunglasses when he introduced Nathan Milstein at the Kennedy Center Honors Banquet?).