REGISTER NOW AND GET
• 5 FREE tracks! • 101 tracks for $9.99
ClassicsOnline Home » RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Rubinstein) (1946-1950)
Although Rubinstein did not play many works by Rachmaninov, he made four recordings of the Piano Concerto No. 2. If, in this May 1946 recording, Rubinstein’s adherence to the text is not always completely accurate, his performance is full of exhilaration and panache with fast tempos and a climax judged to have any audience jumping to its feet. The 1947 recording of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is remarkable, even today, for the high quality of the sound, described as ‘Stunning! The recording is almost too vivid’, by a critic in 1948. The only solo work of Rachmaninov that Rubinstein committed to disc was the famous Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 3 No. 2 which he recorded twice.
By Jonathan Woolf
Rubinstein’s 1946 Carnegie Hall recording of the C minor concerto is one of the fastest on record; I can’t say the fastest because I’m in no position to have heard them all. It’s certainly quicker than the composer’s own electric recording with Stokowski though roughly on a par with the 1924 late acoustic they made together. Even here however Rubinstein is quite a bit quicker in the finale. The effect is one of intense excitement and engagement, sprinkled with a number of the pianist’s own textual emendations, and given the notorious microphone placement on which he insisted the result is a blockbusting, visceral and very up-front traversal. Rubinstein refuses almost all offers to linger, preferring instead a valiant, almost defiant linearity that’s by no means finger perfect but adds a remarkable gloss to more indulgent performers. That said I don’t think anyone would call Moiseiwitsch sentimental in this regard and yet he in his recordings with Goehr and Cameron was altogether slower—three and a half minutes slower in total with Goehr in 1937 for example —and he didn’t sound sentimental either.
What does emerge strongly in this performance is Rubinstein’s approach to elements of Rachmaninoff’s writing that others can elide, especially audible—given the nature of the recording—in the slow movement. I found his playing here at its best, though the recording sabotages string counter themes and wind lines rather ruinously; even the horns suffer badly. But the compensations are once again linear and decisive, qualities that reappear in the finale. Moiseiwitsch’s slightly earlier performance of this clocked in at 11:24—and he was no slouch; Rubinstein dispatches his finale in 9:58.
The Rhapsody is better balanced. He also had a better orchestra than the NBC in the form of the Philharmonia and a better accompanist than Golschmann in Walter Susskind. Still it’s again a vivaciously phrased and again very powerful, no prisoners type of performance. The pianist’s chording is dynamic and ringing, the horns sound resplendent. The winds etch their lines with powerful personality. For all the élan things don’t sound breathless as they could in the concerto. The tempo here is on a par with Moiseiwitsch’s. A 1950 C sharp minor Prelude makes a formidable, if perhaps inevitable ‘encore’—Rubinstein’s only commercial recording of a solo piece by the composer.
In conclusion there’s quite a bit under an hour of well annotated and expertly transferred Rubinstein-Rachmaninoff here. Powerful, graphically pictorial and directional; intensely dramatic, sometimes uncomfortably so.
By Rob Maynard
Whatever the reason for Rubinstein’s remarkably careless approach, it inevitably means that this performance cannot be regarded as an authoritative account, either of the concerto itself or of Rubinstein’s artistry. It is, in fact, far better listened to as if it were a recording of how the pianist might have given an exciting one-off live performance, warts and all. And, let me concede at once, this is a very thrilling account that, with fast tempos throughout, would have had a real audience, no doubt mentally singing along to “Full moon and empty arms” [Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman’s hit popular song for Frank Sinatra based on the concerto’s big tune], jumping out of their seats with enthusiasm. …The artistic result [for the op.43 Rhapsody]was rather more satisfactory – indeed, Rubinstein’s restraint in the famous Variation XVIII makes it arguably even more effective than usual - but it is hard to see, from a purely musical point of view, why anyone would choose this version over any other.
What was quite rightly picked up by reviewers at the time, however, was the excellent quality of the recorded sound from Abbey Road Studio no.1. One critic, quoted in Jonathan Summers’s very useful notes, rated it as “[s]tunning! ... almost too vivid … larger than life … I really had to go outside on the landing, where I liked it still better” and then suggested that this recording might even mark the point where “recorders are reaching the limit of what one can stand in the ordinary small drawing-room”. Apparently rather frightened by that, the records show that EMI engineers made a note to “reduce level of dangerous passages” before the discs were released!
Rubinstein only ever recorded one of Rachmaninoff’s solo piano pieces—the C sharp minor Prelude—and the version we have here was his second attempt. Again, it is a perfectly fine interpretation but not one to pick off the shelves in preference to many others. As an encore here, though. it does its job well.
Given, though, that, taken together, the concerto and the Rhapsody clock in at less than 52 minutes, ought we to have been expecting something more substantial than just an encore at that point? I know that this is a bargain price disc—but does a bargain cease to be a real one if the product itself is, unlike that Sinatra moon, not much more than half full?
By Gary Lemco
Though many collectors already own the RCA Rubinstein Edition, they may gravitate to these restored-sound inscriptions made possible through Mark Obert-Thorn and the Naxos label. Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982) played relatively little Rachmaninov, considering the vast scope of his repertory, but he did inscribe the C Minor Concerto four times, and this, from 27 May 1946 at Carnegie Hall, features some fast tempos and luxuriant tone. Working with the amiable Vladimir Golschmann (1893-1972), Rubinstein finds a conductor who accommodates the several deviations from the composer’s text, especially as the left-hand part of the last movement often eludes Rubinstein’s technique. In the 1950s, Rubinstein encountered similar problems in recording Rachmaninov with Fritz Reiner, and more than one Chicago Symphony musician made invidious comparisons to their work with Kapell, with whom music had proceeded more smoothly. Still, the 1946 performance exudes some fierce moments of excitement, and Rubinstein knows how to graduate a climax for maximum effect.
Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982)
RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 2 • Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Born in Lódê, in 1887, 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 to Berlin at the age of ten 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 ninety-five, completing two volumes of an entertaining autobiography entitled My Young Years (1973) and My Many Years (1980). He died in 1982 in Geneva.
Rubinstein did not play many works by Rachmaninov and the reason for this can be found in his memoirs where he writes, ‘In my opinion he was a greater pianist than a composer. I fall, I have to admit, under the charm of his compositions when I hear them but return home with a slight distaste for their too brazenly expressed sweetness.’ Rubinstein was well aware, however, of works that were successful with audiences and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, which had its première in 1901, was one of the most popular concertos during the twentieth century. Rubinstein first played the work in public in the 1908-1909 season only seven years after its first performance, and played it throughout his career. His first recording of the work was made in August 1945 with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski but this studio recording was not released as it did not receive approval from the artists. A year later in May 1946 Rubinstein recorded the work again, this time in New York’s Carnegie Hall, with the NBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Vladimir Golschmann (1893-1972). The recording was completed in one session from 9 a.m. to 2.30 p.m., with most sides being recorded in one or two takes. Only the first side of the last movement required three takes, no doubt because it contains a notoriously difficult lefthand passage, one of the most technically taxing parts of the work for the pianist. Indeed, Rubinstein’s adherence to the text is not always completely accurate, particularly in the left hand, as some of the more demanding passages show; he sacrifices textural fidelity for speed and excitement. It is, however, a performance full of exhilaration and panache with fast tempos and a climax judged to have any audience jumping to its feet. A live recording of Rubinstein and Koussevitzky in this work from a radio broadcast of September 1949 displays this same excitement.
Rubinstein recorded this concerto twice more - in 1956 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Fritz Reiner, and in 1971, when he was in his mid-eighties, with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy.
The only solo work of Rachmaninov that Rubinstein committed to disc was the famous Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2, which he recorded in 1936. A second recording was made in Hollywood in December 1950 and can be heard here as an encore.
In September 1947 Rubinstein was in London to give a recital at the Royal Albert Hall on 19 September. He played Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue by César Franck, a Chopin group, Napoli by Poulenc with some Debussy, and concluded his recital with the Three Movements from Petroushka that Stravinsky had dedicated to him. A few days before this concert, Rubinstein visited HMV’s Abbey Road studios to record the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, by Rachmaninov with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Walter Susskind. The two recording sessions were straightforward with two takes of each of the first three sides made on 16th September, and the remaining three sides recorded the next day (although side 5 needed a third take). At the end of the second session two more takes were made of side 3 and it is this fourth take that was used in the released recording. There must have been some technical problems, however, in the production of the recording as in March 1948 sides 3 and 6 had to be transferred at a lower volume level ‘to reduce level of dangerous passages’. The high quality of the recorded sound is noticeable today, and when the discs were first released one critic wrote, ‘Stunning! The recording is almost too vivid. One’s tiny chamber is invaded alarmingly, but exhilaratingly. The piquancies and thrills of tone, volume, attack and arabesque assail the ear, intoxicatingly. The piano is larger than life. On that I’m not, at the moment, quite sold……And for some of this set I really had to go outside on the landing, where I liked it still better. It may be that recorders are reaching the limits of what one can stand in the ordinary small drawing-room. The production here is certainly tremendous.’ These comments were published in March 1948 before the transfers ‘to reduce level of dangerous passages’ were made and it should also be remembered that Rubinstein always insisted that the sound of the piano be placed forward so that it should be heard above the orchestra at all times – some believe this is the reason the Stokowski version of the Second Concerto was not approved for release.
Rubinstein returned to Abbey Road studios on 30th September 1947 where he recorded Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Thomas Beecham using cadenzas by Saint-Saëns and the following two days returned to record some short solo pieces by Schumann, Poulenc and Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23. On 12th October he was back at the Albert Hall where he played the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 83, by Brahms and the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23, by Tchaikovsky in one Sunday afternoon programme with the London Symphony Orchestra and Basil Cameron. The following month the HMV publicity machine swung into gear with a full page advertisement in Gramophone magazine under the title ‘Artur Rubinstein – a tribute’ where the following, by one Fred Smith, was quoted: ‘The magnetism, the supreme artistry of this great pianist, made the massive Albert Hall ring with applause from floor to ceiling. It was not the last evening of the Promenade Season, when one expects hand-clapping and frenzied enthusiasm. No, it was a Sunday afternoon concert, and Rubinstein was there. It was an experience that will forever live in my memory.’
© 2008 Jonathan Summers
SERGEY RACHMANINOV (1873 - 1943) 8.111289
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18
Arthur Rubinstein, piano
NBC Symphony Orchestra • Vladimir Golschmann
Recorded 27 May 1946
in Carnegie Hall, New York City
Matrices: D6-RC-5912-2A, 5913-2, 5914-1, 5915-2, 5916-1, 5917-2, 5918-1, 5919-1 and 5920-1
First issued on RCA Victor 11-9297 through 11-9301 in album M-1075
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Arthur Rubinstein, piano
Philharmonia Orchestra • Walter Susskind
Recorded 16-17 September 1947
in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London
Matrices: 2EA 12288-2, 12289-2, 12290-4, 12291-1, 12292-2 and 12293-1
First issued on HMV DB 6566 through 6568
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2 4:22
Arthur Rubinstein, piano
Recorded 11 December 1950
in the RCA Studios, Hollywood
First issued on RCA Victor LM-1153