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Music, Milstein & The Handshake Principle

On Thursday, 1 September, Geoffrey Allan and Benjamin Frith will perform a piano and violin duet at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre. In his latest blog Geoff tells us more about the music...

I finished my previous blog with the piano tuner about to arrive at my home in preparation for the rehearsal with pianist Benjamin Frith last week. That job has needed doing for a while, and I was glad that the rehearsal pushed me to finally make the call. I’m not much of a pianist myself to be honest, but quite enjoy messing around at the keyboard, often trying to improvise on the songs of Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern etc. However, after my session with Ben I felt as if my piano was looking at me rather disdainfully as if to say, “Now that’s PROPER piano playing!”

And it would have been right – if anything erring on the side of understatement. We had not only a very productive day together, but also a very pleasant one, in which coffee and snack breaks took equal prominence with practising. We get on very well together not only musically but socially, and enjoyed swapping anecdotes both from our own experiences in the profession and of the great players of our respective instruments. And it occurred to me in relating some of these, how many of mine come from my illustrious mentor Nathan Milstein, and how close some of the music we are performing seems as a result.

There is no question that Milstein (1904 – 1992) was one of the greatest violinists of all time. He remains one of a tiny handful of elite players who have a legendary status in the musical world for their total mastery of the instrument in addition to profound musicianship and that indefinable personal chemistry which sets them apart. I am incredibly fortunate to have studied with him, not only for what he taught me about the violin, but for the huge cultural influence he exerted on me. He knew virtually every celebrated musician and composer who lived during his lifetime, and had stories to tell about many of them. So while lessons with him were extremely demanding, often lasting four hours, there usually came a moment when his charming wife would rescue me with a gentle knock on the door and inform us that tea was ready. So we’d repair to the drawing room for tea and various delicacies, and Mr. Milstein would start to reminisce. I used to wish I had a tape-recorder on these occasions.

I remember someone once referring to “The Handshake Principle” i.e. how many handshakes are you away from a given famous person, in this case composers? Well, in the case of my forthcoming recital programme, I’m not more than three from any of them apart from Mozart ( I think most people would struggle with him), and that includes Brahms! In one obvious case I score a resounding “1” on the HP scale, as I’m playing a piece by Milstein himself, Paganiniana. This is for violin alone, and a fiendishly difficult set of variations on the famous theme of Paganini’s 24th Caprice. With the set of three short Russian works which follow it, I am only one step removed from Stravinsky, Glazounov and Rachmaninov. Nathan Milstein knew them all very well – indeed Rachmaninov made the transcription of Moussorgsky’s Hopak which we are playing especially for him. In the case of Glazounov, young Nathan played the Violin Concerto when he was ten with the composer conducting – an incredible feat as it is a difficult work. Less fortunate was the occasion some years later when, after another performance of the Concerto, Glazounov came to the stage to accompany Milstein in his own Meditation (the piece we are including on Thursday). Sadly, the composer was drunk and unable to accomplish his duties at the piano! However, Milstein obviously had huge affection and respect for him. In the case of Brahms (Scherzo) I can reach him in three steps through the intermediary of Fritz Kreisler, another of my violinistic idols from the previous generation to my teacher. He grew up in Vienna and knew Brahms in his youth. I admit that I’m unsure whether Milstein knew Gabriel Fauré, so I’ll settle for a “3” there as he certainly met Ravel who studied with Fauré. Fauré’s Sonata is a beautiful piece, and Ben’s choice. I’d played it many years ago, but am delighted to have the excuse to relearn it.

With Gershwin, whose suite from the opera Porgy and Bess concludes our programme, it will be a “2” again, as I know Milstein met him on a number of occasions. However, with these pieces we focus on another superlative violinist, Jascha Heifetz, who made the arrangements for violin and piano which we will perform on Thursday. Heifetz was good friends with Gershwin and used to pester the composer to write something for violin. Unfortunately, Gershwin died before he got around to it, so Heifetz transcribed several numbers from Porgy and Bess (as well as his Piano Preludes) to satisfy his desire to perform his friend’s music. Like Heifetz, I have always loved Gershwin’s music, so I too have the opportunity to play it on an instrument on which hopefully I have some slight competence – much to the relief, no doubt, of my long-suffering piano!

Geoff Allan – Leader, Northern Ballet Sinfonia

The views expressed in blogs are those of the author and not necessarily of Northern Ballet.