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ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 / TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Rubinstein) (1929, 1932)
Arthur Rubinstein’s career extended well into his eighties, with his final recital taking place in London’s Wigmore Hall in June 1976 at the age of 87. In the late 1920s Rubinstein’s playing contained a joie de vivre that was missing from his later more serious and occasionally stolid recordings. This 1929 recording of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is notable for Rubinstein’s overall fleetness and light-footed approach. The result is a refreshing and exciting reading. Rubinstein’s 1932 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is similarly characterised by a lack of weightiness and a freshness of approach that makes this reading a delight to hear. At the beginning, when Rubinstein plays the first statement of the theme in octaves, how beautifully and lyrically he shapes the phrases, and he keeps the underlying rhythm going in the following short cadenza so that it sounds an integral part of the movement.
By David Denton
Great Pianists • Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982)
BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 • TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1
Born in 1887, in Lódź, Poland, Arthur Rubinstein was the youngest of seven children, the sixth being born eight years before him. At the age of four his musical talent was tested by Joseph Joachim at Berlin's Hochschule für Musik. He was not exploited as a child prodigy and returned at the age of ten to Berlin, where Joachim supervised his musical training, and Heinrich Barth taught him piano. At twelve Rubinstein made his début in Berlin playing Mozart's Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488, with Joachim conducting. The summer of 1903 was spent with Paderewski at his home in Morges and upon his return to Berlin, Rubinstein decided to finish his studies with Barth and go to Paris where he made his début in 1904. Two years later he made his début in New York and during the next ten years lived the life of a touring artist, performing in Europe and South America and collaborating with Pablo Casals, Jacques Thibaud and Eugène Ysaÿe.
After the First World War Rubinstein lived life to the full as performer and socialite, and continued a successful career well into his eighties. In the mid- 1950s he played seventeen works for piano and orchestra in five concerts, and in 1961, already in his mid-seventies, played ten recitals at Carnegie Hall. He gave his final recital in London's Wigmore Hall in June 1976 at the age of 87. He lived on with failing eyesight until the age of 95, completing two volumes of entertaining autobiography entitled My Young Years (1973) and My Many Years (1980). He died in 1982 in Geneva.
In the late 1920s Rubinstein's playing contained a definite joie de vivre that was missing from his later recordings, which are more serious and stolid. His first HMV recordings were made in March 1928 when he recorded the same works on a Steinway and Blüthner piano. When he returned to the studios in April he used a Blüthner piano and in January 1929 a Bechstein. In fact, for all of his recording sessions in 1929 he used a Bechstein including the recording of Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 83- Rubinstein's first concerto recording - made in October in London's Kingsway Hall. Two sessions were needed with the first three sides of the first movement being recorded on 22 October and the remainder of the first movement and the rest of the concerto being recorded the following day. Rubinstein was accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Russian-born English conductor Albert Coates. At the end of the second session they decided to record a third take of the first side, the opening of the concerto, and this was chosen for release.
In modern times this concerto has become a ponderous experience as pianists indulge themselves in attempts to communicate expressivity, often resulting only in performances of torpor. Rubinstein uses rhythm to propel the work forward, his overall fleetness and light-footed approach never detracting from the more solemn moments. The result is a refreshing and exciting reading that is also a valuable lesson. Compton Mackenzie, editor of The Gramophone magazine (referring to 'Rubenstein' throughout) wrote in 1930: 'For me the most enjoyable production recently has been the Brahms Piano Concerto in B flat, played by Arthur Rubinstein… Perhaps because I got to know it very well on the player-piano I find it a much easier work to fancy that I enjoy to the full than I do the other two concertos.' He was referring to the Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto here and also to a time before the invention of the gramophone, when music lovers had to make themselves familiar with important works either through score reading, live performance or mechanical reproduction as with the player-piano. He continues to a public who at that time was naturally educated in the Greek myths, 'I am particularly fond of Arthur Rubinstein's playing, and I think that Albert Coates as a conductor has been successful in avoiding the Charybdis of too much reverence and the vulgar Scylla of irreverence in his interpretation. I hope I am not unjustifiably revealing a secret behind the scenes when I say that Arthur Rubinstein was suffering from an acute attack of neuritis when he gave this remarkable performance. There is certainly no sign of that depressing condition in the result.' Although in his autobiography My Many Years Rubinstein stated that he did not like the recording at the time it was made, he said nothing about neuritis.
In January 1931, fourteen months after the Brahms Concerto recording, Rubinstein returned to HMV to record the Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488, by Mozart and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21, by Chopin. Both were with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Barbirolli and were again recorded in Kingsway Hall in London. By June 1932 when Rubinstein came to record Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23, with the same forces, HMV had opened their new studios at Abbey Road in North London where state of the art recording apparatus was used to make this recording. Like the Brahms concerto recording, the work took two sessions to complete, the majority of the first movement recorded on 9 June 1932 and the remainder of the concerto the following day. At the end of the second session retakes were made of the opening of the concerto and the second side of the second movement; neither was used, and first takes of both these sides were selected for release.
Rubinstein brings the same traits to this performance as he did to the Brahms recording – a lack of weightiness and a freshness of approach that makes this reading a delight to hear. Notice at the beginning, when Rubinstein plays the first statement of the theme in octaves, how beautifully and lyrically he shapes the phrases, as if singing it, and he keeps the underlying rhythm going in the following short cadenza so that it sounds an integral part of the movement. Barbirolli matches Rubinstein's approach throughout and it is telling to read that Rubinstein's deftness and lack of indulgence with tempi and rhythm led one critic to write that, 'His outlook, for the rest, I should describe as modern: one feels that some of the music, by a magic twist, could easily turn out to be by someone born a generation later.'
© 2007 Jonathan Summers
The sources for the present transfers were American Victor shellac discs: "Z" pressings for the Tchaikovsky and "Z" and "Gold" label pressings for the Brahms. The Brahms was a problematic recording in several ways. As Rubinstein himself noted in his memoir, My Young Years, he was placed at the back of the stage for this recording, far away from the conductor, and the piano he was playing was somewhat out of tune. It is also inherently a rather noisy recording, even using the best source material. I have tried to avoid filtering out too much of the surface noise in order to present the best possible tonal balance.
JOHANNES BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83
Recorded in Kingsway Hall, London, 22–23 October 1929
Matrices: Cc 17825-3A, 17826-2A, 17827-2, 17829-1, 17830-2, 17831-3A, 17833-2A, 17834-2, 17835-2 and 17836-2
First issued on HMV D 1746 through 1750
PYOTR IL'YICH TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23
Recorded in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, 9-10 June 1932
Matrices: 2B 2910-1, 2911-2, 2912-2, 2913-4, 2914-1, 2915-1, 2916-2 and 2917-2
First issued on HMV DB 1731 through 1734
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