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.