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 David Denton
Looking back at Arthur Rubsintein’s discography, it is strange to find so few recordings of music by Rachmaninov, though he placed on disc four versions of the Second Piano Concerto. This one was made in 1946 partnered by the NBC Symphony with Vladimir Golshmann. Polish by birth in 1887, Rubinstein lived the life of a touring virtuoso, moving around the world in a diary packed with future engagements. He was to study in Berlin, the violinist and conductor, Joseph Joachim, nurturing the prodigious talent, his major concert debut coming at the age of 16 in 1903. With a massive career already established, he enjoyed a rather colourful life as a socialite in his 30’s and 40’s, his performances tending to be more flamboyant than in later life. It proved to be a long career that lasted well into his eighties, his appearances in the States and the UK being particularly well received. He was highly regarded for his unfailingly accurate technique, this concerto performance a fine example of that precision. Tempos for the outer movements are quick but remarkably free of those mannerisms that were common at the time. The following year, 1947, going to London for concerts, he recorded the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini at the Abbey Road Studio, the recently formed Philharmonia being conducted by Walter Susskind. At the time the sound quality was hailed as remarkable, and even today it is still pretty impressive. I must tread cautiously as this is often regarded as one of the work’s finest recorded performances. I find it rather cold, his formidable technique placed before the music. Yet when you hear those quick variations played with such an exhilarating brio - the nineteenth sparkles like cut diamonds - you can see why critics at the time were so bowled over. The accompaniment is equally good, and though Rubinstein always demanded the piano should dominate, there is still much orchestral detail to savour. As an ‘encore’ we have an unfussy account of Rachmaninov’s famous C sharp minor Prelude recorded in Hollywood in 1950.
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