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ClassicsOnline Home » CHOPIN, F.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Rubinstein) (1946, 1953)
This release is the first in a series devoted to Arthur Rubinstein’s ‘middle period’ Chopin cycle, recorded from the mid-1940s through the mid-1950s. Long admired by Rubinstein aficionados, these interpretations (the pianist’s second of both works) have been said to combine the fire and youthful exuberance of his 1930s recordings with the greater maturity and structural coherence that characterize his final stereo tapings. The 1946 Carnegie Hall recording of Concerto No. 2 boasts excellent sound quality due to the use of lacquer discs later transferred to tape for LP release.
Chopin Piano Concertos 1 & 2
I feel ambivalent about having been asked to write a review of these two piano concertos played by Artur Rubinstein, not least because it would be presumptuous for me to comment upon performances by that towering genius of the piano, but also because I generally value music critics as much as I value the pontifications of wine reviewers, ever mindful of the adage that nobody has ever put up a monument to a critic. I listen to the music or drink the wine and then make up my mind. Having listened to these two concertos recently on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Classic FM programme it didn't take me long to make up my mind that I wanted to listen to them again, and again, and again... and having downloaded them from ClassicsOnline that is just what I have been doing, to my great delight. Chopin's joyous love of life and people seems to me to be what his music is about and Rubinstein is the perfect vehicle for transmitting this to the listener.more....
By Rob Maynard
An English reviewer of the 1946 performance of the F minor concerto, quoted in Jonathan Summers’s excellent booklet notes, wrote perceptively that “you might feel that there is an absence of quiet, delicate playing. [Rubinstein]…takes a dashing view of the concerto, of the first movement especially, and scarcely anywhere is there any pianissimo ravishment. But it is a valid view and this virile performance, with some wonderful playing, held my attention all through with delight.” Virility is indeed the key concept here, I think, and I personally found this account something of a breath of fresh air, banishing even the slightest hint of over-sentimentality and revealing the concerto in a fresh coat of paint.
The performance of the E minor concerto is rather less novel in approach though it has one quirky moment where Rubinstein gives the very opening phrase of the first movement a curious rhythmic snap—which I don’t, pace Mr Summers, detect to “exactly the same” extent in the subsequent 1961 re-recording. Nevertheless, this is another very fine performance, superbly conceived and executed. Contemporary critics had a few negative things to say about Alfred Wallenstein’s direction of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but I actually found that to be one of the recording’s great strengths. The conductor fully matches Rubinstein in strength and vigour and, in Mark Obert-Thorn’s expert restoration, the orchestra comes out sounding very well indeed, even allowing for the date of the performance. Initial pressings must have been rather odd because one English reviewer swore that he detected a saxophone in the orchestral mix!
When wanting to listen to a Rubinstein account of these concertos in the future, I imagine, then, that it will almost certainly be this one—rather than the over-impulsive 1930s accounts or the comparatively stately traversals of his final “grand old man” phase—that I will be taking from the shelves with the greatest sense of pleasurable anticipation.
By Bryce Morrison
Jaw-dropping pianism, even if Chopin’s subtleties are sometimes swept aside
Complementing its Chopin release from Cortot [8.110612] and Moiseiwitsch [8.111118], Naxos now offers the first disc in a series devoted to Arthur Rubinstein’s recordings dating from the mid-a940s to the ‘50s. Mercifully uncut, unlike Rubinstein’s previous disc s of both concertos with Barbirolli, these are astonishing performances, occasionally, particularly in the F minor Concerto, content simply to astonish. Here there is an almost arrogant dismissal of all difficulties and a prima donna stance sometimes hard to square with some of Chopin’s more delicate and ornate confidences. In the scintillating coda Rubinstein takes his bravura to a spine-tingling edge, but in, for example, the Larghetto’s central storms there is a brusque, streamlined indifference to the music’s finer qualities. In the E minor Concerto, while recognisably the same pianist, Rubinstein is altogether more subtle, following his characteristic exuberance and extroversion with playing of a rapt magic and delicacy. The music may be sent smartly on its way by both conductor and soloist, but the patrician ease, nonchalant glitter and authority of Rubinstein’s playing are uniquely his to command. These are both extraordinary performances by an extraordinary pianist though of the two, the E minor Concerto is the more affecting. Mark Obert-Thorn’s restoration of the 1953 sound is a model of remastery though even he cannot make the 1946 F minor Concerto sound less than cramped.
Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849):
The Two Piano Concertos
Born in 1887, in the Polish city of Łódź, Arthur Rubinstein was the youngest of seven children, the sixth being born eight years before him. When young Arthur was four, Joseph Joachim tested his musical talent 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 95, completing two volumes of entertaining autobiography titled My Young Years (1973) and My Many Years (1980). He died in 1982 in Switzerland in Geneva.
Rubinstein had played both of the Chopin concertos right from the beginning of his career and they feature on his earliest surviving repertoire list of 1904 when he was seventeen years of age. Rubinstein recorded the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21, the first that Chopin wrote, in 1931 with John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra. His second recording of the work heard here was made not long after the end of the Second World War in March 1946. At this time RCA was still recording on wax for 78rpm disc release, but also on lacquer discs, later transferred to tape for LP release. This accounts for the excellent sound quality of this recording made more than sixty years ago. Carnegie Hall was used as the recording venue and it took just over four hours to complete with most of the sections being recorded in first takes.
At the time of its release Harold Schonberg compared the recording to that of Cortot’s citing that Cortot ‘does not display the superficial brilliance that is so noticeable in Rubinstein’s set. The latter is too great a pianist to pass off with a mere shrug, but certainly he could have played with greater restraint and less of an impulse to exhibit the qualities of his fingerwork.’ Rubinstein certainly plays the scales in the dramatic section of the Larghetto in a rushed and perfunctory manner, but his fingerwork at the end of the third movement is not always clear where he prefers to concentrate more on rhythm and speed than articulation. An English reviewer wrote, ‘You might feel that there is an absence of quiet, delicate playing. He takes a dashing view of the concerto, of the first movement especially, and scarcely anywhere is there any pianissimo ravishment. But it is a valid view and this virile performance, with some wonderful playing, held my attention all through with delight.’ Rubinstein’s partner for the recording was William Steinberg (1899–1978) a German born American conductor who had studied with Hermann Abendroth at the Cologne Conservatory. He formed the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (becoming the Israel Philharmonic in 1948) with violinist Bronis1aw Huberman and was invited by Toscanini to become associate conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, which he conducts on this recording. Rubinstein recorded this concerto twice more—in 1958 with Alfred Wallenstein and the Symphony of the Air, and in 1968 at the age of 81, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
After the success of the 1931 Barbirolli recording of the Second Concerto, Rubinstein was paired with the same forces by HMV for his first recording of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11, in 1937. Rubinstein’s second recording of this concerto was made in 1953 with Alfred Wallenstein (1898–1983) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra of which Wallenstein was musical director from 1943 to 1956. Rubinstein had a very full day in the Hollywood recording studio on 12th December 1953. With producer Jack Pfeiffer in attendance, Rubinstein recorded some piano solos by Grieg, Schumann and Chopin beginning at 10.30am, breaking for lunch at 1.15pm for an hour and a half. Returning to the studio at 2.45pm he continued to record until 4.45pm. After a few hours break Rubinstein returned to the studio at 7pm where he was joined by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Wallenstein where they worked for six hours, completing the recording session at 1am. Upon its release the recording was greeted with rave reviews: the American Record Guide began, ‘Here is another of RCA Victor’s stunning new recordings, and it mirrors with exceptional fidelity the loveliest performance of Chopin’s treasureable E minor concerto this generation has known.’ Another American critic concurred that ‘Mr. Rubinstein provides the best recording to date on LP of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto. The pianist personalizes the long, filigreed melodies with his perfect instinct for the right amount of rubato. The rhythms are free, never too free; the pulse relaxed, but not slack. The music breathes naturally; every little figuration can be heard to a proper degree. Strength and brilliance are available when necessary, and the Rondo is dashing, even playful. The piano is rightly given prominence in the recording, and it has a beautiful bright ring.’
A completely opposite opinion was expressed by an English critic who wrote a very anti-American review tetchily finding fault with everything about the recording and performance, at one point asking of Rubinstein, ‘Could he be persuaded to undertake a new recording in Europe?’ He found the orchestral playing ‘coarse-grained and raucous’ and continued that ‘Rubinstein has to play the second subject of the first movement and the melody of the Romance against what sounds like a prominent saxophone solo.’ One can only imagine that the reviewer had faulty or poor equipment, as this new transfer does not display any of these anomalies. One fact that is curious however, is the way Rubinstein plays the rhythm of the opening statement of the first movement. He does exactly the same in his 1961 recording with the New Symphony Orchestra of London and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, but on his first recording of the work in 1937 plays it as it is usually heard and notated in the score.
Two American critics completely disagreed over Wallenstein’s support. The American Record Guide wrote, ‘Alfred Wallenstein, by the way, handles his part of the performance with unusual care and grace. He knows Rubinstein is the star of the occasion; but that does not embarrass him or keep him from providing alert support.’ In complete contrast another review of the same recording ended, ‘The only flaw in the performance is Mr. Wallenstein’s perfunctory reading of the orchestral accompaniment. Pale as the original scoring is, it deserves better treatment.’
These recordings of the Chopin concertos trade some of Rubinstein’s youthful exuberance found in his 1930s versions for a more coherent structural underpinning and improvement in sound quality.
© 2008 Jonathan Summers
This release is the first in a series devoted to Arthur Rubinstein’s “middle period” Chopin cycle, recorded from the mid-1940s through the mid-1950s. Long admired by Rubinstein aficionados, these interpretations have been said to combine the fire of his 1930s recordings with the greater maturity that characterizes his final stereo traversals.
The First Concerto has been transferred from a Japanese LP pressing cut from the original master tapes. The Second Concerto was originally recorded simultaneously on wax masters and wide-frequency lacquer discs, the latter of which formed the basis for a tape transfer made by RCA in 1949 and first released on LP as LM-1046. That was the source used for the current remastering, which was taken from a combination of German and American (plum “shaded dog”) LPs. There is some grittiness during loud passages which appears to be part of the masters, as it can also be heard on RCA’s own CD transfer.
GREAT PIANISTS • ARTHUR RUBINSTEIN
Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849): Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra • Alfred Wallenstein
Recorded 12 December 1953 at Republic Pictures Studios, Hollywood
Matrix nos.: E4-RP-8011 and 8012
First issued on RCA Victor LM-1810
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21
NBC Symphony Orchestra • William Steinberg
Recorded 25 March 1946 in Carnegie Hall, New York City
Matrix nos.: D6-RC-5919-1, 5920-1, 5921-1, 5922-2, 5923-1, 5924-2 and 5925-2
First issued on RCA Victor M-1012
Arthur Rubinstein, Piano
Special thanks to Mike Gray for discographic information
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