Saturday, May 28, 2011

Rubinstein Revisited

(The recordings on this video correspond to some of the recordings discussed below.)

Arthur Rubinstein (I include the “h” in his first name as he preferred) was easily the most beloved pianist of the 20th Century. His concerts regularly sold out, his recordings consistently sold well, and he seldom got a bad review. Rubinstein’s career had such endurance that by the time he retired, he had crossed over from the limited niche of Classical music and was known to the general public. (He did this, by the way, without straying from the Classical and Romantic repertoire that he loved, and continued to make known his distaste for popular music – the Beatles in particular.) Rubinstein’s recordings of much of the core repertoire, particularly Chopin and Brahms, became the standard for how those works are played and will be with us for many decades.

Some of the hallmarks of Rubinstein’s best playing – the gorgeous tone, technique that was solid but never for show, healthy temperament - were so obvious that much else that distinguished the pianist from many of his contemporaries was missed. It was not Rubinstein’s style to offer the high-wire excitement of a Horowitz, the dynamic contrasts of a Hofmann, or the gaunt angularity of a Serkin. At the tail end of the “Golden-Age” of piano playing, Rubinstein’s straightforward, uncluttered performances must have come as a splash of cold water across the face of the cognoscenti. It’s not for nothing that Paderewski, who Rubinstein considered the epitome of the “bad” 19th Century school, much preferred the young Horowitz. (Paderewski described Horowitz as “self-disciplined, and above all, he has rhythm and tone…Without any doubt, he is the most convincing of the younger pianists.”) Rachmaninoff, whose own style of playing was straighter than Paderewski’s but still rooted in an earlier tradition, considered Horowitz his heir. If Rachmaninoff ever had any opinion on Rubinstein, aside from his advice to his Polish-colleague to stop playing “dirty modern music” like Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, I have yet to see it.

I never heard Rubinstein in person. I was only nine years old when he retired. I first heard AR's playing in 1983, when I found an old 78RPM recording of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata in my grandmother's basement (it was the 1946 recording, in retrospect a pretty slapdash performance - despite the surface thrills). Since that time, I’ve come to know his playing much better.

Several times, I’ve heard young pianists comment to the effect that they didn’t understand why Rubinstein was so popular with the older generation of music lovers. The recordings they’d heard (which would naturally be the most easily available) sounded cautious or even stodgy.

The historical view of Rubinstein as pianist and musician has become somewhat distorted. It’s not easy to get a grasp of the totality of Rubinstein’s career. It may be impossible, since there’s no one alive today who would remember his earliest performances. Recordings give a very incomplete picture: Rubinstein’s very first recording, made in 1910 when he was 23, has never been issued on LP or CD and is nearly impossible to find. (I have never heard it, but have been told that all one can hear through the poor sonics is rather careless, sloppy playing.) His next recording wasn’t made until 1928 when he was over 40 - the same age Evgeny Kissin is at this writing. From that point on, Rubinstein recorded prolifically until he was 89 – at one point he was the world’s most recorded Classical pianist. But he was loath to make live recordings, and the few he made reveal that he played differently in concert than in the studio. RCA (now Sony) reissued Rubinstein's stereo studio recordings several times - going back to the early CD era, while the most of the mono recordings have been issued only once - and many are hard to find. Problem is, most of the stereo recordings capture the final phase of Rubinstein's long career - and it's impossible to have a balanced view of his playing without knowing more of his output. It would be like judging Toscanini's conducting based only on his last years at NBC, or Horowitz solely on his Deutsche Grammophon recordings.

About ten years ago, I bought RCA’s mammoth boxed set of Rubinstein’s complete recordings with that label – over 106 hours of recorded music covering a period from 1928 to 1976. Many of these performances were unfamiliar to me. But it was fascinating to follow the evolution of his playing from middle to old age. Rubinstein’s recording career coincided with a quantum leap in recording technology, starting in the earliest years of electrical recording (that is, recording with a microphone instead of a horn) during the 78RPM era, to the LP, and stereophonic sound. (By time digital recording came into common use, Rubinstein had retired – and early digital recordings seldom sounded very good anyway.) Every time recording technology improved, Rubinstein would rerecord his core repertoire – so we often have at least three recordings of the same works.

There were basically three phases of Rubinstein's recording career:

* 1928-1946: Impetuous playing, full of brio, but sometimes uncontrolled, very much a virtuoso but sometimes gets carried away, more freedom and imagination than in later years.
* 1947-1962: greater maturity, still hot blooded but starting to mellow, most secure technically, increasing understanding of musical structure.
* 1963-1976: maturity giving way to stodginess, control of pianissimo failing, best in contemplative repertoire like late Brahms.

In short, if you haven’t heard recordings drawn from Rubinstein’s early and middle periods, you haven’t heard Rubinstein. Examples of the evolution in Rubinstein’s playing can be found in the many works he recorded several times. One that comes to mind for me is Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, which Rubinstein recorded in 1929, 1952, 1958, and 1971. (There are other, unauthorized recordings from broadcasts and the like, but I am only including the authorized versions here since they presumably reflect Rubinstein’s wishes.) The 1929 version is a hell-for-leather performance that runs contrary to “traditional” Brahms, and quite marred by technical lapses and over-pedaling. But wrong notes were inevitable in the days before tape editing, so those can be forgiven, and Rubinstein may have been falling back on his youthful habit of leaning on the pedal to avoid exposing cheated passagework. The question is: Did Rubinstein not practice enough for this recording? Or was he determined to present his conception of the work no matter what the obstacles and blemishes? I am inclined to believe the latter. It should be noted that Rubinstein’s tempos in this performance are closer to Brahms’ metronome markings than any other recording I’ve heard.

The 1952 and 1958 are very similar in approach, although the stereophonic sound of the latter makes it preferable. These are still rather impetuous performances, not as extreme in tempo as the 1929 version, but outgoing. The pianist often stated that since Brahms was alive until Rubinstein was ten years old, he thought of him as a living composer instead of an old master. This is not the tired, grey bearded Brahms, but a vigorous, temperamental, even lusty conception.

The last version, with Ormandy, is the weakest. His conception of the piece had changed dramatically in the intervening years, and he seems to have traded one extreme for the other. The octogenarian pianist’s tempos are slow here, phrasing is flabby, then opening flourish of the Scherzo is played in an almost dainty fashion, and Rubinstein seems overwhelmed by the Philadelphians. A pseudo-reverential quality drains the spontaneity and passion that marked his earlier recordings. One wonders if Rubinstein was thinking of this recording when he stated in his autobiography that the first versions he recorded inevitably remained the best.

Much the same could be said for Rubinstein’s Chopin as for his Brahms – but there is a twist since Chopin wrote across more solo piano genres than Brahms.

Rubinstein recorded the bulk of Chopin’s solo works three times (roughly: in the 1930s, late ‘40s/early ‘50s, and in the stereo era starting in 1958). There are exceptions to this pattern: the Ballades were recorded only once, as were the Op. 28 Preludes and the Third Sonata – and some assorted pieces were recorded more than three times.

As has been noted by many, Rubinstein never recorded the Op. 10 & 25 Etudes in the studio (an attempt in the late 1960s was abandoned after one session). But he did record the Trois Nouvelles Etudes twice – the early stereo version from 1958 is a bit more alert than the 1962 remake.

Rubinstein’s one traversal of the Preludes, from 1946, is a perfunctory rendition and not among his best efforts in any composer’s work.

I heartily endorse his 1950s Chopin Polonaises which I reviewed under the headline "The Best Polonaises – EVER!". (That headline earned me a good amount of hate-mail, particularly from Pollini fans. The headline was a parody of a famous line from Mommie Dearest.) I have yet to hear a set of Polonaises that combines the fire, swagger, and gravitas of this idiom better than this cycle. The same for his 1949 Scherzos – although the superior sound in the 1959 Scherzos compensates for a slight falling off in tempos.

But in the Nocturnes and Mazurkas, I recommend the 1930s set, which have many moments of magic missing from the later sets. Why is this? For one thing, some of these pieces were probably new to him. Rubinstein played only a small selection of Nocturnes and Mazurkas in concert, and the idea of recording a complete set of them was unusual in the 1930s and fairly daring on Rubinstein’s and HMV’s part. (Schnabel’s set of Beethoven Sonatas had to be financed in advance via subscriptions.) The freshness in this set is palpable. But by the 1960s, Rubinstein was very much aware that he was the "elder statesman" of Chopin; he knew this would be his last cycle of Chopin's music, and he was thinking of "posterity." As such, his last set of Mazurkas was over-thought and rather stiff – “stripped of pungency” in the words of David Dubal. There's also the problem - likely caused by his failing hearing – that Rubinstein consistently played too loudly in the last decade of his career. That especially marred his last version of the Nocturnes.

Indeed, of Rubinstein’s later Chopin recordings, I can only recommend one without reservations: His 1961 recording of the famous Funeral March Sonata is head and shoulders above his 1946 version. There is a relaxed kind of virtuosity here, and a keener grasp of the totality of the piece than in 1946. The B minor Sonata (his only recording of the piece, made over a two year period) is not on the same exalted level. Rubinstein seems to have had a troubled relationship with the B minor sonata, and legend has it he threw a tape of a concert version of this piece into his fireplace.

There is a pattern to be discerned above in the Brahms and Chopin examples above, and it can also be confirmed by listening to Rubinstein’s recordings of other works like Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue or any of his concerto recordings: His understanding of large scale works improved as he aged, while his recordings of shorter works tended to lose imagination with time.

(I do not endorse the notion, claimed by some, that Rubinstein’s last producer, Max Wilcox, was responsible for the character of Rubinstein’s later recordings. There are plenty of instances in the later years, such as the all-French album or the Chamber music recordings, where Rubinstein is clearly “on.” In any case, recordings were never issued during Rubinstein’s lifetime without his consent, and one can presume that they met his standards. The idea of Wilcox pressuring Rubinstein into playing in a certain way, or tricking the pianist into releasing something not to his standards, is at once laughable and defamatory.)

Despite the changes in his performances, positive and negative, that came with age and maturity, Rubinstein's interpretations were always very normal, in the sense that they didn’t call attention to themselves. In the last half of the 20th Century, there were growing numbers of pianists who offered straight interpretations of the standard repertoire (Ashkenazy was the king of normalcy, IMO). But when Rubinstein was starting out, this kind of straightforward, unfussy approach was somewhat new. The notion that Glenn Gould put forth, that one shouldn’t perform a work unless one consciously intended to perform it differently, was anathema to Rubinstein’s philosophy. As Daniel Barenboim said, Rubinstein put all of his musical ideas through a “strainer of naturalness” and if an idea didn’t pass through that strainer, Rubinstein rejected it. His early Chopin performances put off the old-schoolers, who expected a more personalized approach. Rubinstein once said that his masculine approach to Chopin, performed without the “swan dive into the keyboard” angered many critics – “they said my Chopin was ‘cold’”. But there were pianists before Rubinstein who rejected swan diving, including Hofmann and Rachmaninoff.

Although Rubinstein’s never recorded the complete Beethoven Sonatas or Mozart Concertos, his repertoire was vast stylistically – encompassing Bach to Szymanowski. And he seemed to play so much of it remarkably well, in the same suave, warm, uncluttered way his public came to expect. It’s no surprise that the concert going public, who felt fear/awe at Horowitz and respected Arrau, considered Rubinstein to be their “beloved Artur.”

It may be a false sense of causation by way of correlation on my part, but I feel that Rubinstein’s knowledge of various human cultures helped him musically. Born in Poland, he studied in Berlin and spent his adult years living in London, France, and the United States. He traveled so widely that he became fluent in eight languages. (He once stated that he would play anywhere except Tibet, because it was too high, or Germany, because it was too low. Contrary to popular belief, he was not referring to the Holocaust in his condemnation of Germany, but to that nation’s behavior during World War I. I have sometimes wondered if Rubinstein’s boycott of Germany is an underlying reason why some have never accepted him as a Beethoven interpreter – I can’t find a musical justification for the dismissal of some of his Beethoven.) It seems to me, also, that Rubinstein was able to play an uncommonly large swath of repertoire with a high degree of authenticity. Although it can fairly be pointed out that Rubinstein sometimes glossed over details - particularly with regard to dynamic markings - everything he played had a clear, high-level approach. Neither his German, French, nor Spanish repertoire was ever played with a Polish accent. His Chopin, appropriately, was. Yet even in his countryman’s music, he was more urbane and cosmopolitan than, say, Witold Małcużyński.

Now, following an era when normalcy gave way to stultification, it seems like interpretations are moving back into a more personalized approach - witness the explosion of pianists who play transcriptions (their own and others) and the very individualistic performances by pianists such as Lang Lang, Denis Matsuev, Alice Sara Ott, and others. But without the tradition of 19th Century performance practice as a foundation, many of these youngsters flounder in their attempts at individuality. Rubinstein was able to balance his individuality (that tone alone makes him instantly identifiable) and his romantic temperament with his innate classicism – note the small “r” and small “c”.

Arthur Rubinstein proved that Classicism and Romanticism, upper or lower case, are not opposing virtues.



Hank, congrats on this most instructive and perceptive survey of Rubinstein's style and recordings. I haven't heard nearly as many of his registers as you have, but I entirely agree with your view: Rubinstein's greatness lies in his blend of classicism and romanticism, a mixture made all the more unique because it came enveloped in a healthy and upbeat delivery.
Best regards,

MegaMusic said...

Hank, thanks for posting on that a complete jacket collection may be in the work for Rubinstein. I own the complete Horowitz collection, and it is great! Do you have any idea of the release date?


Hank Drake said...

Hi Brad. The Rubinstein original album collection has been released in Japan and Europe. American release has been delayed until January 2012, but it can be ordered via on overseas seller online and shipped here.