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Legendary Fiddlers Three: Milstein, Szigeti, Grumiaux

<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar. </i>

That Nathan Milstein, who died last December at age 88, was a splendidly equipped violinist, equally gifted in the taste and technique departments, seems beyond dispute. As is the less obvious fact that he was important as a bridge between the emotive, self-expressive Romantic school of violin playing and a tougher, more objective modern style.

It is also evident, on the basis of EMI’s six-CD Milstein tribute (64830, mid-price), that he showed little inclination to differentiate one composer and one era from another.

That assessment may not be quite fair, since this collection is restricted to recordings originally made for the Capitol label between 1955 and 1966. On this evidence, Milstein’s firm, focused tone (his soft playing is thrillingly steady), with unvarying medium-wide vibrato and rhythmic intensity, was universally applied to violin concertos of Glazunov, Dvorak, Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, sonatas by Handel, Vitali, Tartini, Mozart, Prokofiev, and a gaggle of encore tidbits.

The miniatures indicate that charm wasn’t Milstein’s strong suit. Elsewhere, a certain sameness aside (one doesn’t normally listen to three or four blockbuster Romantic concertos in a row), Milstein’s haughty serenity and avoidance of sentimental trickery are impressive adjuncts to his rock-solid technique, while reinforcing the notion that spontaneity and a measure of what might be called humanity were generally absent.

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Then, too, his conductors here--William Steinberg, Erich Leinsdorf, Anatole Fistoulari--seem more skilled mechanics than assertive partners, with much the same to be said for pianists Leon Pommers and Artur Balsam.

Interestingly, interpretive fantasy is brought into play in Prokofiev’s G-minor concerto, where Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, hardly one of the living legends of the baton, teams with Milstein at his most engaged and the New Philharmonia Orchestra for a performance of great distinction. It deserves to be reissued separately, along with Milstein’s equally impressive reading of the Prokofiev D-major Concerto (not included here), conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini.

There are rewards as well in the EMI set in the lively partnership of Milstein and Rudolf Firkusny in Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata, although even here the violinist can sound more the scold than the requisite blithe spirit.

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Hungarian-born Joseph Szigeti (1892-1973) has been widely regarded as a musician’s musician, a reputation ever more vehemently defended as his technique, never of super-virtuoso caliber, deteriorated in the 1940s.

That there were once strong fingers and arms to go along with the Szigeti brain is illustrated by his generally polished, thoughtful and muscular 1930s readings of concertos by Mozart (K. 218), Mendelssohn and Prokofiev (in D), although he had trouble even then with the lower positions of the Prokofiev (EMI 64562, mid-price).

Szigeti is forcefully partnered in all three by Sir Thomas Beecham, directing a scrappy London Philharmonic whose violins, rather endearingly, are not discouraged from indulging in the swoopy slides that were anathema to Szigeti.

Perhaps its general air of purposefulness and constant momentum commends Szigeti’s best work--on exhibit here--to modern ears. It was a chastening influence in its time, setting thoughtful violinists on the path to greater textual fidelity and stylistic awareness.

One can imagine the Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux (1921-88) approving of Szigeti’s shapely, no-nonsense interpretations. But with just as little nonsense in his makeup and gifted with more imposing tone and technique, Grumiaux was the superior violinist, particularly in his vital, intensely communicative readings of the five Mozart violin concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, in which the commanding violist is Arrigo Pellicia.

Throughout, the pre-knighthood Colin Davis leads with unfailing panache the London Symphony of its--and his--1960s glory days.

The set, in Philips valuable new “Duo” series (438 323, two CDs), is also a spectacular bargain at somewhere between budget and mid-price.


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