Few musicians achieve household recognition, but Arthur Rubinstein appears on virtually everyone's shortlist of great and enriching artists. True, he was a public relations or image-maker's dream, his professional and personal life the stuff of legend. Generous, tireless, an inveterate socialite, bon viveur and a true child of La belle époque, he courted high society and was equally at ease with European royalty or Hollywood's ersatz equivalent, pausing only to lament the relative dourness of later generations.
'When I was young we enjoyed ourselves. Why are today's young people so serious, so lacking in joie de vivre?' Anxious to tell journalists and admirers that he was 'the happiest man I have ever met...You see, I just adore life' (a useful catch-phrase later used as Arthur Rubinstein, ou l'amour de la vie, the title of the 1970 Academy Award-winning film), he also acknowledged after his early Spanish triumph: 'I love Spain as one loves a woman...with tenderness.' Indeed, wine, women and song were his natural and unapologetic milieu; he even confessed to finding Chopin's Barcarolle a handy aphrodisiac, easily turning the heads and hearts of women held spellbound by his matchless elegance and charisma.
All this and more appears in the two-volume autobiography My Young Years and My Many Years (Jonathan Cape: 1973 and 1980), ghosted by Annabelle Whitestone, the companion and amanuensis of his old age. Such writing, with its disappointing crudity and superficiality, evaded a darker side of Rubinstein's personality.
For this we turn to Harvey Sachs's Rubinstein: A Life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: 1996) which tells of Rubinstein's easily aroused personal jealousy. Here we find sympathy for a fellow pianist – in this case Horowitz - quickly turning to a sniping and sustained attack ('he was the world's greatest pianist, I the finer musician').
The Paris music critic Bernard Gavoty complained that My Many Years consisted of 'nothing but dinner, bedroom scenes, travels, lobsters, caviar, champagne', before 'an unpardonable frying of all your colleagues in a spicy sauce. Be their names Schnabel, Hofmann, Gieseking, Heifetz, Horowitz - each one is described as having small virtues, entirely unequal to yours! This is fully-fledged megalomania.'
But then, there is Rubinstein the pianist. Reading My Young Years for review purposes, and returning from an interview with Rubinstein, I recall how a feeling of disappointment (those tirelessly related anecdotes had somehow lost their edge and sparkle) was transformed into sheer magic by the quality of Rubinstein's playing. Listening to that instantly recognizable nobility of 'line', nuance and cantabile in his 1970 recording of the Bach/Busoni Chaconne returned me to a reality above and beyond petty rivalries, disputes and a catalogue of amorous conquests. Once more I could cherish a figure central, both live and in the studio, to my musical experience.
Even as a child, as I idly flipped through the pages of a newly and proudly acquired Children's Encyclopaedia, delighted by facts and figures concerning the highest mountains and longest rivers, I stopped to wonder over a picture of Rubinstein bearing the caption, 'When Rubinstein plays Chopin you are carried into another world'. That world, magically apprehended at first, became a certainty as I listened to record after record, every one alive with Rubinstein's alchemy and allure.
Chief among them were the early 1928-39 sets of the Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Polonaises and Scherzos. These I treasured as timeless marvels of stylistic consistency, as remarkable for their richness as their simplicity, for their haunting poetic candour and sophistication.
Here was a wholly modern but timeless Chopin, cleansed of self-serving idiosyncrasy and preening mannerisms, restored, like some great painting, to its pristine state. Remarkably, these performances, like all playing of true vintage, have increased rather than diminished in stature over the years, their presence a reminder of a calibre or standard rarely found in later generations.
But what, more precisely, are the cardinal qualities that make Chopin and Rubinstein synonymous? Comments such as Rudolf Serkin's on Horowitz, 'his Chopin was like a fire-ball exploding', or 'if people understood what Horowitz's tone meant he'd be banned from the keyboard' (William Kapell), seem oddly alien to Rubinstein's more imperturbable vision.
Arnold Steinhardt, leader of the Guarneri Quartet, comes close to defining an elixir when he says, 'Rubinstein could mould a phrase with great freedom, but it was never excessive or in bad taste. It was magical, because you never knew how he did it; he'd do those little rubatos but with an eye-dropper - a little bit with a note here or there. You got an overwhelming feeling of fluidity and elasticity, and it was always aristocratic.'
Writing more recently, I described his rubato as being 'as naturaI as it was personaI, a true sense of nuance and musical breathing, a subtle bending of the phrase, an ebb and flow, a robbing and giving back of time. Virtually every bar of Rubinstein's Chopin declares his mastery over this most vexed of questions regarding Chopin style, affecting his listeners like some great singer in his arching of a phrase, his momentary hesitation, like some emotional catch in the voice. Above all, there was a sovereign ease and naturalness. Audiences felt transported...'
Yet if it is right and significant that Philips devoted the first of its 'Great Pianists' tributes to Rubinstein exclusively to his Chopin, it is necessary to add that such richness came from the widest knowledge and catholicity.
Once described as more of a dandy than a serious artist, Rubinstein fought tirelessly to achieve performances of a transcendant grace and translucence. As he himself put it, 'I didn't want my children to grow up and think their father was a second-rater; someone who could have been a great pianist.'
As a corollary, Rubinstein saw Chopin within the context of other composers. His repertoire was immense and although even his most ardent devotees would hardly turn to him for a blinding insight into, say, late Beethoven (his remark that such music was more for private than public consumption, and that audiences secretly preferred early- and middle-period Beethoven, is surely telling) they heard him in superb performances of much modern and contemporary work by Szymanowski, Stravinsky, Villa-Lobos and so on, whose music he joyfully premiered in the face of often fierce and uncomprehending hostility.
Playing Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales to a Spanish audience, he was booed and hissed for his enterprise. So much so that when he returned to the platform for an encore, he played the entire work again, provoking a major scandal. Albeniz's Iberia which, like Stravinsky's Petrushka and Falla's Ritual Fire and Terror Dances, he shrewdly and mischievously 'arranged' for maximum effect, velocity and brio, was among his headiest successes. Iberia and Petrushka, therefore, as well as Szymanowski's daunting Second Sonata, are among the most regrettable omissions from Rubinstein's discography.
Yet to speak of such omissions or of Rubinstein's decision to wait for a less fiercely competitive environment before learning Rachmaninov's Third Concerto is, in sense, unrealistic. Rubinstein's largesse, his cornucopia of offerings, is perhaps hardly surprising from a man who, unlike so many of his fellow artists, exclaimed, 'I adore making records...it thrills me. I have a feeling of perpetuation.'
He also saw recording as his greatest teacher, the studio the opposite of Schnabel's dreaded 'torture chamber' and a place where he could hone his art, balancing exploration and spontaneity with an ever-increasing sense of musical perspective and refinement.
Rubinstein was as aware as other 'first-raters' (he rightly included himself among such an elite) that his quality derived from a gift beyond definition. And while he was aware that talent unsupported by the fiercest and most single-minded application can be both fragile and illusory, he also knew that such talent, a mysterious gift from the gods, came first. As he himself put it, 'I have always thought of myself as a musical instrument - neither violin nor piano - but "essence" of music. I never walk or dream or go to sleep without having music in my head. Music is my form.'
This article originally appeared in the Awards 1999 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe