Vintage Rubinstein and Chopin,
Complete recorded editions of Classical music were almost unheard of in the 1930s. Artur Schnabel was making a complete version of Beethoven's 32 Sonatas, but many musicians didn't consider Chopin's music "worthy" of such attention (he was just a salon composer, after all). Arthur Rubinstein didn't believe any of that nonsense about Chopin. His respect for his compatriot informed both his interpretation of his music, and his decision to record the bulk of Chopin's piano music. This 5CD set contains Rubinstein's first cycle of Chopin's music, although it's far from complete. Rubinstein didn't get around to recording a set of Waltzes or Ballades until the LP era. It's pretty well known among his fans that he tried to record a set of Etudes in the late 1960s and quit after one session. Nor did he record any of Chopin's juvenilia such as the first Sonata. Caveats aside, these recordings deserve to be heard. There's a sense of adventure and discovery that is somewhat absent in Rubinstein's later recordings (not to mention those of certain note perfect automatons).
The Barcarolle, Op 60 was recorded at Rubinstein's second recording session, in 1928. This performance is closer in tempo and phrasing to the manner in which Rubinstein played the piece "live" than his later studio recordings. Indeed, there is an erotic impulse in this version which is largely missing from his 1957 and 1962 remakes.
Rubinstein made three complete versions of Chopin's Scherzos, with this first set dating from 1932. All three versions offer testament to the pianist's solid technique, innate virtuosity, and natural sense of musical architecture. Tempos are breathtakingly faster in these earlier performances than in the later ones. Considering the fact that editing was impossible during this era, and his considerable risk taking, Rubinstein's very few inconsequential mistakes are understandable.
As with the Scherzos, Rubinstein recorded three versions of the Mazurkas. This first version (from 1938-1939) is markedly freer, more compelling, and more poetic than his later remakes. It's my favorite among Rubinstein's three sets. The pianist's use of rubato is more pronounced, as is his greater emphasis on inner voices, which Rubinstein later banished from his playing. Rubinstein's 1936-1937 Nocturnes (again, the first of three sets) are also far different from his 1960s stereo version. In addition to the attributes found on the early Mazurkas, these performances are graced with more sensitive shades of pianissimo (Rubinstein's quiet passages became louder as time progressed, possibly due to hearing loss). As with his other two versions of these works, Rubinstein never allows sentiment (empathy) to be confused with sentimentality (schmaltz).
If the nocturnes lull you into a sense of repose, the Polonaises will get you fired up. It is interesting to compare this 1934-1935 cycle with the more renowned stereo version from 1964. While the later cycle emphasizes a rather dignified approach, the earlier version is more spontaneous. The brio, freedom, and swagger of this set simply have to be heard to be believed. True, Rubinstein, like a runaway train, comes dangerously close to running off the rails at times. But the musical rewards the pianist reaps are well worth the technical risks, and the more reflective Polonaises are played with simple, unforced poetry. Rubinstein's innate understanding of the structural underpinnings of Chopin's music comes through in the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61, a notoriously difficult work to hold together. On balance, I feel the 1950s "middle-period" set most effectively balances virtuosity with gravitas.
Rubinstein made three official recordings of the E minor Concerto, and four of the F minor Concerto. (There is an additional, filmed performance of the F minor from 1975.) As was customary during the 78RPM era, the introductions of both concertos are shortened here. Rubinstein's tempos are faster than in later versions, with greater use of rubato and freer phrasing. There are some inconsequential mistakes here and there, both on the part of the pianist and the orchestra. Despite the occasional fluffs and dated sound, I prefer these very exciting versions to Rubinstein's later attempts. But I must frankly confess that I feel Rubinstein has been bettered by Krystian Zimerman (in his self-conducted version with the Polish Festival Orchestra) and Vasily Primakov in the Concertos. The London Symphony Orchestra under John Barbirolli provides a strong accompaniment to these often underrated works.
These recordings originate from 78RPM discs. They have been issued several times, including by RCA as part of their complete edition of Rubinstein's recordings. If you already have those, there's no point in getting this EMI set as RCA's remastering is superior. The remastering here is acceptable, and at budget price, it is very tempting for the newcomer. Despite the slight surface noise, and occasional "tubbiness" in the piano tone, Rubinstein's fresh performances come through loud & clear.