As has been previously explored, a number of pianists were not fully served by their discography. The subject of today’s feature — born 135 years ago today, on January 28, 1887 — was an artist who may have recorded more than any other pianist of the many generations he spanned over the course of his seven-decade career. His many fans could not begin to imagine that his many acclaimed recordings are not representative of his artistry, but the nature of his temperament means that few of these discs fully reveal the brilliance experienced by the audiences lucky enough to hear his playing ‘live.’
Arthur Rubinstein recorded prolifically — small- and large-scale solo works, chamber music, concertos — from the 1920s through the 1970s, a sanctioned output filling 94 CDs, in addition to filmed and concert recordings. His playing changed from his 30s through to his late 80s — how could it not! — and for all the limitations of his studio recordings, his music-making in each era had its unique charm and brilliance. But does even such an abundance of recordings show him at his best?
Rubinstein himself said that in his youth he was less technically precise (he was too busy living the good life to practice as much as he should have, apparently) and while there are occasionally moments where he glosses over some difficulties in some of his earlier discs, his statements cannot be taken too literally. His 1937 recording of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.10 is a prime example: approaching the age of 50, Rubinstein plays absolutely flawlessly, with deftly defined articulation, refined dynamic gradations, gorgeous tone, and idiomatic timing — and his glissandi and runs are marvellously executed. It is important to remember that this performance was made on a single side of a record that was cut ‘live’ as there was no editing possible at the time, and this performance is flawless in every way.
A stunning reading, one that is far superior to his recording made some two decades later at a time when precision editing was possible. As fine as that subsequent version is, it lacks the panache and vitality of this magnificent earlier account.
It was ostensibly because his technique was not quite up to snuff that Rubinstein didn’t record the Chopin Etudes, despite having put other complete Chopin cycles on disc multiple times (the Mazurkas three times, for example). He was particularly celebrated for his Chopin, and his approach to this composer’s works was radically different from that of another pianist with whom his career crossed timelines, Alfred Cortot, who recorded the complete Etudes (twice, in fact — in 1933/34 and in 1942), even with an abundance with wrong notes (but with undeniable style). Rubinstein himself made fun of his own sloppiness, joking about how he played these works in his youth with great exuberance but fistfuls of wrong notes:
While he did not record the complete set like some of his contemporaries, he did play several of these works in concert and put at least one incredible reading down on disc, a truly moving account of the Etude Op.10 No.9, one of the less overtly virtuosic Etudes that is very difficult to pull off. As it stands, this would be a worthy contender for one of Rubinstein’s finest Chopin recordings:
On film he could be a bit of a showman (he appeared in some Hollywood productions) in a way that did not fully reveal the depth of his artistry, and on record, without the inspiration of an audience, he sometimes lacked the passion and drive that we hear in his live recordings. Rubinstein came alive on stage, and a number of live recordings reveal a more engaged artist than the one in his studio discs, one who clearly relished the atmosphere and authentic connection of the concert hall.
There was another thing about Rubinstein on stage: everyone who heard him ‘live’ said that his tone was exceptionally beautiful in the hall and that none of his records came close to capturing the luminous quality of his sonority.
The pianist’s legendary 1964 Moscow recital finds the 77-year-old in stunning form in all ways: the audience was enthralled, helping the pianist be his best, and even through the less-than-ideal nature of the recording, we can hear the astounding beauty of his tonal colours filling the hall. And even with a few wrong notes, the playing in these four Chopin Etudes is absolutely sublime:
Rubinstein continued playing for over another decade, producing some filmed performances in his mid to late 80s that are remarkable for their power and command. In Amsterdam in 1973, he set down with conductor Bernard Haitink filmed accounts of the Beethoven C Minor and the towering Brahms D Minor Concertos — the latter a work very few octogenarians would dare perform. Two years later in London, he filmed three other concerto performances with André Previn on the podium: the Grieg, the Saint-Saens 2nd, and Chopin’s F Minor. What nobility, grandeur, and impeccable musicianship in these extremely precious filmed documents. His 1973 Brahms D Minor is particularly noteworthy for the fusion of power and sensitivity in such a physically and emotionally taxing work.
One thing draws one’s attention as much as his music-making: Rubinstein’s incredible composure, with an utterly immobile face and noble posture. Although he was known to raise his hands a lot when playing vivacious showpieces, his torso remained immobile and his face devoid of any of the contortions that present-day pianists seem to believe are part and parcel of playing classical music emotionally. Like the other all-time great pianists of his era — Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Moisewitsch (particularly famous for his poker face) — Rubinstein focused his attention on his hands and what came through them rather than diluting his energy by crafting grimaces to convey a visual impression of an emotion that we should be hearing and feeling.
His final recital was at the age of 88 in 1976 at Wigmore Hall in London, and while that performance appears not to have been recorded, we are able to see him in a full recital a year earlier, at Ambassador College in Pasadena, California. Rubinstein had apparently insisted that the concert not be recorded and his manager arranged for a crew to surreptitiously disregard that demand (their cameras were cloaked in black), and the result is an incredible document showcasing one of the more beloved pianists of the century near the very end of his long career.
Rubinstein was almost completely blind but plays with a level of control and fluidity that pianists half his age would be happy to have, in a recital longer than the norm today with some truly demanding works. As Albert Goldberg wrote in The Los Angeles Times, “If he had intended this for a last will and testament, it could hardly have been more to his liking or more secure insurance for such immortality as any performer is allowed.”