Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Chopin and Pollini in Winter

Following on the heels of their almost complete reissue of Maurizio Pollini's Deutsche Grammophon recordings, the label has issued a new recital of late works by Chopin.  Click here to read my review.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

My Top-10 Rubinstein Recordings

It’s hard to believe that Arthur Rubinstein, one of the most prolific classical pianists on record, was born 130 years ago this month.  The continued availability of his recordings makes him a continuing presence in the lives of music lovers.  Rubinstein’s complete “authorized” recordings cover nearly 100 CDs – along with dozens of live and studio recordings that have been issued since his death in 1982.  To the best of my knowledge, only Vladimir Ashkenazy has made more piano recordings than Rubinstein.

I’m limiting this list to solo recordings.  But many of his chamber music and concerto recordings are essential to any classical recording collection.  For chamber music, I’d recommend his Beethoven and Brahms Violin Sonatas with Szeryng – the definition of suave urbanity, along with his late period recordings with the Guarneri Quartet.  Rubinstein recorded most of the active Concerto repertoire.  In general, his early stereo recordings with Krips and Wallenstein have stood the test of time – although I’d also want his early Beethoven G major with Beecham.

The recordings listed here are from RCA’s 1999 Rubinstein reissue, although there are newer issues with different couplings available. 

Bach-Busoni, Franck, Liszt, 1961-1970. The Bach-Busoni Chaconne, and Franck Chorale, Prelude, and Fugue are the high points of this disc.  Both were recorded in 1970 and represent late-Rubinstein at his best.  This Liszt Sonata from 1965 is a solid rendition, if missing the last bit of inspiration.  The Villa-Lobos O Polichinelo was a Rubinstein specialty and makes for a charming encore.

French Recital – 1945, 1961.  Ravel, Debussy, Fauré, Poulenc, Chabrier.  Rubinstein knew most of these composers personally, and was an early champion of Ravel’s Noble & Sentimental waltzes. 

Spanish Recital – 1947, 1955.  Before Alicia de Larrocha came along, Rubinstein was generally considered the preeminent interpreter of Spanish and South American Classical music.  He dropped many of the solo pieces from his repertoire after 1961, so we’re fortunate these mono recordings have been reissued. 

Chopin: Polonaises – 1950, 1951.  Simply put, the best Chopin Polonaises ever recorded, combining the passion and swagger of Rubinstein’s 1930s version with the polish of his 1960s version.  If one can listen past the monaural sound – which is actually pretty good, one need own no other version.

Chopin: Ballades & Scherzos, 1959, 1965.  Rubinstein recorded the Scherzos thrice and the Ballades once.  The 1949 Scherzos are slightly more virtuosic and forward moving, but the very fine Living Stereo sound in this 1959 version compensates.  The Ballades, also from 1959 are my favorite cycle although there are individual Ballades from other performers that I prefer. The Tarantelle, from 1965, makes a rollicking encore.

Chopin: Nocturnes, 1931 - 1937.  This, Rubinstein’s first of three Nocturne cycles, is on balance the best – with imaginative phrasing, better control of pianissimo, and more charisma than his later versions.  Also includes virtuosic renditions of the two Concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra under John Barbirolli.

Chopin: Waltzes, 1962 - 1964.  The Waltzes were recorded at RCA’s Italiana studio during a single glorious session in 1963, and are about the most straightforward renditions of these works you’ll hear.  The Impromptus and Bolero are a fine bonus.

Schumann: Fantasy Pieces, Op. 12; Carnaval, Op. 9 - 1961, 1962.  Rubinstein was not my favorite Schumann interpreter.  But these two poetic and virtuosic renditions make a persuasive case for the “sane” approach to Schumann interpretation.

Schubert: Sonata, D. 960, Wanderer Fantasy, Two Impromptus, D. 899 - 1961, 1965.  Rubinstein’s essentially optimistic view of Schubert’s last Sonata is the antithesis of the picky interpretation of Brendel and the deathly pathos of Richter.  But it works on its own terms.

Beethoven: Pathetique, Moonlight, Appassionata, and Les Adieux Sonatas – 1962, 1963.  With the exception of the Moonlight Sonata, Rubinstein recorded each of these Sonatas multiple times.  These 1962-1963 stereo recordings are the most successful of Rubinstein’s versions.

Rubinstein at Carnegie Hall, 1961.  The pianist was notoriously picky about issuing live recordings.   All ten of Rubinstein’s 1961 Carnegie Hall recitals (the fees for which he donated to charity) were recorded, but he only allowed the release of a few recordings – and was even said to have personally destroyed one of the tapes.  The prismatic colors of the Debussy works are beautifully captured, along with the quirky Prokofiev Visions-Fugitives, Szymanowski Mazurkas, and Villa-Lobos – and the Albeniz encore has to be heard to be believed.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

DG's (almost) complete Pollini box

Deutsche Grammophon has reissued the bulk of their recordings with pianist Maurizio Pollini.  Click here to find out what's missing and more in my review.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Alexis Weissenberg on RCA (with a dash of Columbia)

Sony has reissued their complete RCA Red Seal recordings featuring the late Alexis Weissenberg.  Click here to read my review

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Cleveland Orchestra Brahms cycle on DVD

A new cycle of Brahms Symphonies and Concertos (not including the Double Concerto, unfortunately) played by The Cleveland Orchestra has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. Click here to read my review.


Friday, January 6, 2017

Roosevelt’s challenge – Hitler’s blunder

On January 6, 1942 – less than a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor devastated America’s Pacific fleet, Franklin D. Roosevelt slowly approached the rostrum to deliver his State of the Union address. The United States was at war with not only the Empire of Japan, but with Italy and Germany. The news for the Allies was bad on nearly every front, but one would never believe it based on the confidence in Roosevelt’s demeanor. Roosevelt believed, just as Churchill did, that with America in the war victory come down to the “proper application of overwhelming force”. That meant not just the conscription of the highest number of able bodied soldiers, sailors, marines, and pilots; it meant out-producing the Axis powers – by orders of magnitude – in creating the weapons of war.


Hitler, when informed of the contents of this speech, derisively laughed at the numbers Roosevelt outlined, referring to them as the fantasies of a man he described as “mentally unsound, just was Wilson was.” Some have tried to paint Hitler as a kind of diabolical genius - but outside of diabolical matters, Hitler was nothing of the sort. He was neither well educated nor well-traveled. In his entire life, Hitler never traveled more than a few hundred miles beyond Germany’s borders. (Roosevelt had seen more of the world by the time he was ten years old.) Hitler’s knowledge of the United States was based on a series of Old West novels by Karl May which he’d read - in translation of course. In Hitler’s view, there was no way a nation “contaminated” by Negros, Jews, and racial mongrels could unite to meet Roosevelt’s production goals – let alone beat the Master Race in a war. Further, Hitler believed Americans of German, Italian, and Japanese descent would undermine their adopted country at every turn. Hitler was, of course, very wrong. Roosevelt’s production goals were not only met but exceeded. And American men of German, Italian, and Japanese descent served with distinction in the fighting forces – even though many of them, particularly Japanese-Americans, were treated shabbily by their fellow Americans. 

Roosevelt’s experience and temperament were the opposite of Hitler’s. Roosevelt was publicly modest about his intelligence – remarking that “I’m not the smartest man in the world, but I sure know how to pick smart people.” He self-deprecatingly remarked that he received “Gentleman C’s” while a student at Harvard, tactfully omitting that he passed the four year program in only three years. (What a contrast to the incoming President, who feels the need to boast of his intelligence on Twitter.) FDR was naturally shocked upon hearing the initial reports that Pearl Harbor was been attacked – at one point, during a phone conversation with an officer in Hawaii, the President exclaimed to an aide, “My God, there’s squadron of Jap planes flying overhead right now!” Unlike Hitler, FDR did not engage in temper tantrums, blame his Generals/Admirals for all his problems, and feel sorry for himself. The dark lessons of polio had taught him patience. This Roosevelt became, as his wife observed, “an iceberg” - the calm at the center of the storm. American needed calm, steady hands at the tiller in 1942. I fear for America in 2017, given the small and unsteady hands, jittering to send out the latest offensive Tweet, which will take the helm in two short weeks.