Nathan Milstein, the durable violin virtuoso who favored eloquence over histrionics and who quietly mastered nearly all of the world’s violin repertoire, died Monday at his London home.
His brother-in-law, Maurice Clairmont, said from New York that the distinguished artist, who retired several years ago after breaking an arm, was 89 and had suffered a heart attack.
“He hadn’t been able to play,” Clairmont said, “but he still worked,” transcribing piano pieces for violin.
At the height of his career, the indefatigable Milstein--who last appeared in Los Angeles in 1985-- gave more than 50 concerts and recitals a year on stages throughout the world.
Once called by Times music critic Martin Bernheimer “one of the wonders of our age,” Milstein for many years was closely identified with the music of Bach, winning a 1975 Grammy award for his recording of that composer’s sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin.
But winning awards was not necessarily Milstein’s metier.
He seemed more comfortable performing without affectation the works of Beethoven, Franck and Saint-Saens on his beloved 1716 Stradivarius.
Born in Odessa, he was a product of the Russian school of violinists that nurtured Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Efrem Zimbalist and David Oistrakh and the last of them to play publicly.
In an artistic world dominated by self-indulgent and ambitious lions, he was a scholarly, self-effacing lamb refusing even to give great meaning to a 1979 U.S. tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of his American debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski.
“I don’t celebrate anything,” he told a reporter. “Whether it’s 10 or 50 years, it doesn’t matter. I play. . . . It only gives me pleasure that I’ve played so long and nobody has arrested me for it.”
He likened the great composers to the characters of people, Beethoven being the most noble, Bach the most sublime, and he sprinkled them in his concerts along with samplings of Rachmaninoff and Liszt.
Born Nathan Mironovich Milstein, the son of a well-to-do woolen goods merchant and a mother who was an amateur violinist and his first teacher, young Nathan studied with Piotr Stoliarsky in his native city until 1914, when he enrolled at the conservatory in St. Petersburg.
His concert career began in 1919 with his sister accompanying him on piano and blossomed two years later when he and pianist Vladimir Horowitz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky formed a trio. Because of the Soviet revolution and the resultant lack of communication with the West, Milstein remained unknown outside Russia until 1925, when he went to Berlin and Brussels for a series of successful recitals and then to Paris and South America.
His American debut was heralded by critics who praised his integrity and virtuosity. He returned the compliment in 1942 by becoming a U.S. citizen, although he lived primarily in London and Switzerland, which his wife preferred.
When not performing, he was entertaining interviewers with charming tales of the cities where he had performed and the people he had met.
He taught master classes in Lausanne, but only for 12 days a year. One of his prized pupils was Japanese violinist Yuri Nagai.
He liked to tell his students that a musician “should be more than an instrument operator. He or she should be a whole person. . . . You cannot play the violin without feeling other things. I don’t say knowing , I say feeling . There is no time to know so much.”
Shortly after Milstein’s death, Bernheimer said that the violinist “was the rarest of virtuosos: a musician who insisted that his virtuosity be taken for granted. He commanded a dazzling technique, but he never seemed particularly interested in showing it off. He was more interested in making music--with serene elegance and mellow eloquence.
“He was a pensive artist who managed to realize his lofty aspirations. As such, he had few peers, and has even fewer successors.”
As early as 1937 Milstein had been called “a kind of secular saint” by a New York Times critic. In 1984, interviewed in New York, Milstein said he did not understand all those lofty tributes. And, he added, he had not made any changes despite those intervening 47 years and the accolades that accompanied them.
He was asked by a Los Angeles Times critic in 1979 if age diminished the skills of those who had pursued the arduous career of the violin.
“When you get older,” he responded, “if you still love doing that thing, there is no reason you cannot still do it.”
His survivors include his wife, Therese; a daughter, Maria; a stepdaughter, Jill, and four grandchildren.