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on May 16, 2005
Bach is my favorite composer, and of all Bach's works, the Goldberg Variations, and these solo violin sonatas/partitas, are my "desert island" works. I've listened to many recordings of these sonatas/partitas, from Yehudi Menuhin to Jascha Heifetz, Grumiaux, Perlman, Podger, and others. Milstein's survey from the 1950s on EMI stands as my favorite, in comparison with his DG rendition in the 1970s.

I had a conversation with one of the editors of the Penguin guide about these recordings, and Milstein was also his favorite, but he preferred the 70s DG version for reasons of sound quality and technical brilliance. I countered that the EMI Milstein set from the 50s was superior for the depth of insight brought to these pieces. Nathan Milstein was in his absolute prime when he first recorded this survey in the 50s. His insights into Bach are pure, with the required delicacy in slow movements, the right touch of silence here and there to let the music breathe, without being CONSPICUOUSLY slow, such as the Perlman set, which tends to drag at times. His fugues are perfectly light on their feet, his rhythms perfectly sprung, without making it a horse race. In short, Milstein stays out of the way of Bach in every moment of the EMI set, and we are face to face with the composer. But in the DG set from the 1970s, Milstein seems to be rushing through some passages (as does Grumiaux), with more regard for "technical brilliance" as the Penguin editor cited, instead of pure musicality and reverence of Bach. I have listened to both Milstein versions, and the 70s DG recording simply does not reach down into the depths of Bach in the same way.

The Jascha Heifetz rendition is also outstanding, but when you listen to it, you know that it's about Heifetz, not so much about Bach. Now, Heifetz was indeed the best of the best, in terms of his technical mastery. The one segment where Heifetz wins me over from everyone else is in the mighty Chaconne from Partita 2. In this Mount Everest of solo violin, Heifetz takes you on an exhilarating ride that leaves you speechless. I have never heard the Chaconne played with such fearless power and confidence than from Heifetz. For that one segment alone, I bow to him above all others. He was indeed the best.

But Heifetz himself always heaped praise upon Nathan Milstein, which was exceedingly rare. Heifetz never praised anyone! Heifetz always demanded that his students go to see Milstein perform. If his students didn't go, they'd be in trouble! So Milstein certainly commanded a great deal of respect from Heifetz. And when you hear Milstein play the mighty Chaconne, he almost has the supreme technical mastery of Heifetz. Not quite, but almost. However, once again, when you hear the Heifetz version, you are hearing Heifetz, the master. When you hear the (50s EMI) Milstein version, you are hearing Bach.

I invite the listener to compare one specific movement between these two Milstein versions, and then make their own decision. Listen very carefully to the opening Grave movement from Sonata 2 in A Minor. Compare and contrast the depth of insight in the 50s version on EMI, and the 70s version on DG. You will most likely come to the same conclusion as I did after making my own comparison. Then compare other movements throughout the set, but start with that one. For me, there is no doubt. The 50s set is pure, unadulterated Bach at its finest. No other violinist came closer to the heart of this beautiful music than Milstein did in the 1950s. Even HE didn't get as close to it when he remade this music later in his life. And by the way, in terms of sound quality, this EMI set from the 50s is perfect! There is no cavernous reverb, just the pure unadulterated sound of Milstein's violin, so clean and clear that he is right there in the room with you. The two words I always come away with after listening to this 50s Milstein set on EMI are "intimacy" and "insight."
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on May 2, 2002
Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein both studied under the great Russian paedogogue Leopold Auer (whose violin method is still standard teaching material). Both emigrated from Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and both found fame and fortune in the West. Heifetz has always been regarded as the greater of the two, and that judgment probably is sound. But Milstein was a master, no doubt about it. He possessed a sovereign technique and played with an aristocratic grace and sense of taste that few other violinists would even dare attempt to emulate. He played Bach's nonpareil unaccompanied sonatas and partitas throughout his long career (which extended from the '20s into the 1980s), and recorded them twice. This version of the partitas (originally recorded by Capitol) dates from the 1950s ... a companion CD containing the sonatas is also available. In spite of the fact that this is a mono recording, I defy anyone to find technical fault with it. Capitol's engineering in the 1950s was first class, among the best in the world. (And do you really need stereo for a solo violin?) Anyway, as good as Milstein's later DG stereo Bach recordings are, these strike me as fresher and more inspired. With competition in this music coming from the likes of Heifetz, Menuhin, Szeryng, Vegh, Rosand and Grumiaux, it's impossible to call any violinist's recording definitive. For my money, though, Milstein comes close to earning that impossible accolade. Simply wonderful music making!
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on July 26, 2007
This is my first music review written on these pages. Why? Because I'm not qualified to review these players. I am an average Bach enthusiast, and an engineer by profession. That's why I say I'm not qualified. Nevertheless I feel the urge to write something about this record. I have listened several times over to these unaccompanied violin pieces, as played by Milstein, Szeryng, Heifetz, Perlman, and Grumiaux. I like them all. The difference for me is the melodious quality of Milstein's playing, combined with the sense that he is 'always on'. By 'always on', I mean that that he articulates and gives life to each note and phrase, and never sounds like he is just playing the piece in a studio. Another reason I like this record is that these Partitas are stars in their own right--each one full of rhythm and melody.

Please don't diminish the value of this record by looking at its price. This thing is an absolute gem. It needs no apologies for the quality of the sound, even though recorded in the 1950's. The violin has great presence. I'm sending a copy to my sister in law right now--that's why I'm even on line to file this review.
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on November 19, 2011
Nathan Milstein was the exceptional, outstanding, otherworldly violinist, who in the Bach repertoire surpassed even Heifetz and Szeryng. This version of the Partitas, recorded in the 1950s (together with the companion 3 solo Sonatas by Bach) is, in my opinion, better and more profound in terms of interpretation and purity of style, than the second version of the same repertoire, which Milstein recorded in the 1970s. In his first version Milstein is simply overwhelming the listener with the sublime perfection of his phrasing and the apotheosis of his interpretation, not to mention the indescribable beauty of his sound and the almost unbearable precision of his intonation! This is simply the highest achievement ever in this particular repertoire. It is well-known that Heifetz always had utmost respect for Nathan Milstein and was forever urging his students to go hear Milstein's performances. An acknowledgement of that stature certainly speaks highly of Heifetz himself, and is a testament to the magnificent talent and musicianship of Milstein. Hopefully many future generations will have the chance to hear these recordings and to allow themselves to be forever bewitched by them and by the genius of Nathan Milstein.
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on May 18, 2015
These recordings from the 50's by Milstein on the original LPs now always bring $500 to $800 when sold at auction. I see why.
I'll probably never be lucky enough to own the LPs, but having the CDs is the next best thing. These performances are magnificent, and of course I'm referring to the companion Sonatas as well when I say that. To my ears and my sensitivities these are clearly the ones that take me to highest heights. One can argue that these solo violin compositions by Bach represent the finest and most sublime music ever created. So, naturally one would want to listen to the finest and most sublime performances. The absolute finest was probably a live recital at some place at some time for at least one or two of these works, but as for recorded works this may very well be the greatest and finest ever.
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on April 12, 2013
These great masterpieces can hardly be performed better, and they had deserved a better recording technique than was possible at that time. Thank God we have today some virtuosos like Hilary Hahn who are able to take over.
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on January 20, 2009
I readily admit to being behind the curve on classical music compared to where I am with other music genres. However, I am no newcomer. Having seen stern, Pearlman, and others in concert and listened to many great violinists on record/cd, I can only say that I almost always gravitate to Milstein. There seems to be such a warm, personal contact with the music he plays. This readily comes out in the listening. I have listened to Oistrach, Milstein's well tutored classmate, and don't get the same feeling from the music. This recording, in particular, is a shining star!
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on January 19, 2008
I just reviewed the set of Sonatas, so this feels rather redundant. If you have any doubts about it listen to the samples of Milstein, then listen to Grumiaux, Heifetz, Perlman or whoever. To my ears, Milstein takes first prize.
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on March 4, 2010
"It's Not How Well You Play It, It's How Fast You_Can_ Play It"

A heroic effort to put all three Partitas on a single side of a 78 RPM record by getting rid of all the silences between notes, and by abridgements and amputations of the score (just compare the timings with other non-Milstein recordings), resulting in zero emotional content. Way too much Milstein, way too little Bach.
Heart-breaking to see these Masterpieces so abused and mutilated.

<T' Evlyn Wd Schl Of Vrtso Spd Ply'n &
Nthn "the Othr Rssn" Mlstn Prsnt
BachVlnPttas#1-3, Abrdg'd>
Recorded February 6, 1956 in mono low fidelity*
Re-released 1998, ADD in mono low fidelity

*There is no excuse for this-- multi-channel high speed
magnetic tape recording was available as early as 1955.
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