Top 10 Rubinstein recordings

Gramophone Mon 23rd January 2017

A beginner's guide to some of the finest Rubinstein recordings currently available

Beethoven Piano Sonata in C, Op 2 No 3 

(RCA)

'It's this freshness which marks Rubinstein's performance of the sonata right through, and the music comes up like a new pin. It seems to suit him particularly well; he finds just the right singing style and aristocratic grace for the second subject group in the first movement – beautifully played - and the exact poise and serenity for the E major Adagio; and the finale, played very fast but with astonishing control, is an irresistible tour de force.' Stephen Plaistow (6/66)

 

Bach/Busoni Chaconne

(RCA)

'The almost orchestral splendour and variety of sonority that he extracts from the keyboard in the Bach/Busoni Chaconne makes it hard to believe that he was already 83 at the time. Besides being richly imaginative, this performance is also finely controlled in every detail.' Joan Chissell (6/80) 

 

Brahms Violin and Piano Sonata No 1

(RCA)

'I do not think I have ever heard the first movement of the Brahms G major Sonata played as beautifully as Szeryng and Rubinstein play it on this record. This is a dream of a performance, marvellously phrased, every note 'felt'. Szeryng has a more certain control of his bow than Menuhin, notably in the very first phrase, while Rubenstein offers much more positive support than Kentner, quite apart from the fact that he is better balanced.' Roger Fiske (12/62)

 

Highlights from 'Rubinstein at Carnegie Hall'

Including Debussy Preludes Szymanowski Mazurkas Prokofiev Visions fugitives Villa-Lobos Prole do bebé

(RCA)

'I am aware that older readers may consider it to be superfluous for me to extol Rubinstein's genius as an interpreter, but I have a feeling that the younger generation may be so familiar with his name that they do not consider his discs alongside those of today 's heroes. The truth is that Rubinstein, both in matters of technique and sense of style, can never be classified as an 'old-fashioned' pianist. His mannerisms were negligible. His name is inescapably linked with Chopin, and yet his mastery of the French repertoire was stunning, and as a Schumann player he commands real admiration. The Debussy, featured in the excerpts from various Carnegie Hall recitals, may not follow the composer's dynamics very closely, but the immense range of colour in "Poissons d'or" is so completely convincing as to silence criticism. The Szymanowski Mazurkas were dedicated to Rubinstein and his playing of them mixes vigour with an appreciation of their Chopinesque origin. I cannot imagine that Szymanowski himself would have made them quite so dynamic.' James Methuen-Campbell (9/87)

 

Chopin Mazurkas

(Naxos)

'Rubinstein’s Mazurkas are the stuff of legends. Chopin’s most subtle and confessional diary, they transcend their humble origins and become in Rubinstein’s hands an ever-audacious series of miniatures extending from the neurasthenic to the radiant, from Chopin’s nagging child (Op 17 No 3) to the unfurling of proud ceremonial colours (Opp 63 No 1). What heartache he conveys in Op 63 No 3; and when has Op 67 No 3 been more intimately confided, its banal association with Les sylphides more blissfully resolved? Chopin’s final composition, Op 68 No 4, becomes a valediction encouraging rather than forbidding weeping, Rubinstein’s rubato the caressing magic that created a furore at his unforgettable recitals.' Bryce Morrison (6/01)

 

Chopin Nocturnes Nos 1-19. Four Scherzos

(Naxos)

'It’s controversial to say so, but such playing makes a mockery of present-day standards. All these performances prove that Rubinstein played the piano as naturally as a bird flies or a fish swims. He was simply in his element, and never more so than in Chopin. Who else has given us the Nocturnes with such ravishing inwardness, pianistic sheen and a bel canto to rival the finest singer? Decorative fioriture are spun off like so much silk, and whether or not you consider Op 15 No 2 ‘inseparable from champagne and truffles’ and Op 27 No 1 a portrait of ‘a corpse washed ashore on a Venetian lagoon’, or hear the nightingales of Nohant in Op 62 No 1 and the chant of the monks of Valdemosa in Op 15 No 3 and Op 37 No 1, you can hardly remain unaffected by Rubinstein’s unique artistry. His feline ease in the double-note flow of Op 37 No 2, or the way he lightens the darkness of the great C minor Nocturne without losing an ounce of its tragedy, all form part of the genius that made him the most celebrated of all Chopin pianists.' Bryce Morrison (6/01)

 

Chopin Polonaises Nos 1-7. Andante Spianato and Grande polonaise

(Naxos)

'Here, in all their glory, are Rubinstein’s 1934-35 recordings of Chopin’s six mature Polonaises framed by examples of his early and late genius (Opp 22 and 61 respectively). Together with his early discs of the Mazurkas, Scherzos and Nocturnes, these performances remain classics of an unassailable calibre, their richness and character increased rather than diminished by the passage of time.

For Schumann, the Polonaises were ‘cannons buried in flowers’ and whether epic or confiding, stark or florid, their national and personal fervour is realised to perfection by Rubinstein. Listen to the Andante spianato from Op 22 and you’ll hear a matchless cantabile, a tribute to a bel canto so often at the heart of Chopin’s elusive and heroic genius. Try the central meno mosso from the First Polonaise and witness an imaginative freedom that can make all possible rivals sound stiff and ungainly by comparison. The colours of the A major Polonaise are unfurled with a rare sense of its ceremonial nature, and the darker, indeed tragic, character of its sombre C minor companion is no less surely caught. The two ‘big’ Polonaises, Opp 44 and 53, are offered with a fearless bravura (you can almost hear the audience’s uproar after Rubinstein’s thunderous conclusion to the latter), rhythmic impetus and idiomatic command beyond criticism. The simple truth is that Rubinstein played the piano as a fish swims in water, free to phrase and inflect with a magic peculiarly his own, to make, in Liszt’s words, ‘emotion speak, weep and sing and sigh’. The sound may seem dated but Naxos’s transfers are excellent, and to think that all this is offered at super-budget price.' Bryce Morrison (4/01)

 

Chopin Waltzes

(RCA)

'There has in recent years been a tendency to take Rubinstein’s imposing series of Chopin recordings from the mid-1960s for granted, but to hear them digitally refurbished soon puts a stop to that. His tone doesn’t have much luxuriance, being quite chiselled; yet a finely tuned sensibility is evident throughout. This is at once demonstrated by his direct interpretation of Op 18, its elegance explicit. His reading of Op 34 No 1 is brillante, as per Chopin’s title. In Op 34 No 2 Rubinstein judges everything faultlessly, distilling the sorrowful yet cannily varied grace of this piece. The two finest here are Opp 42 and 64 No 2, and with the former Rubinstein excels in the unification of its diverse elements, its rises and falls of intensity, its hurryings forward and holdings back. This is also true of his reading of Op 64 No 2, the yearning of whose brief più lento section is memorable indeed.' Max Harrison (10/85)

 

'The Liszt Album'

Arthur Rubinstein pf RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra / Alfred Wallenstein

(RCA)

'Liszt is not a composer one instantly associates with Rubinstein (Harvey Sachs in his quite excellent biography devotes but a single sentence to Liszt in the 37-page survey of the pianist’s recordings). This blistering account of the E flat Concerto, recorded in Carnegie Hall when Rubinstein was in his late sixties, might change that perception. Rubinstein considered Wallenstein, after Barbirolli, the finest orchestral accompanist (praise indeed) and you can hear the benefit of such a partnership: the playing crackles with the drama and energy of a live performance. True, the soundscape is very much of its time (think black-and-white B-movie soundtrack), with the woodwind soloists artificially lit to reflect the forward placing of the soloist and a triangle player who must have been recruited from the New York Fire Department. Somehow it all works – and sends a shiver of delight up the spine.

The solo items, too, generally rise above the often constrained nature of Rubinstein’s studio recordings, though the consistently dry acoustics stifle the full sonority of a concert grand. In the Sonata he eschews the demonic brilliance of Horowitz for dignity and splendour, its emotional climax (truly affecting) coming in the middle of the “slow movement”; “Funérailles”, taken quite fast, is vehement in its despair; the E major Hungarian Rhapsody’s sequence of glissandi, sounding cheap in some hands, is here stylish and witty. And if there are any lingering doubts about Rubinstein’s Lisztian credentials, the final tour de force, the Hungarian Rhapsody No 12, will surely banish them.' Jeremy Nicholas (9/11)

 

‘The Legendary Moscow Recital’

(Medici Arts DVD) Recorded live at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on October 1, 1964

'Considering his celebrity, longevity and huge studio recording legacy, there is very little film of Rubinstein in concert. Indeed, this is the only full solo recital I can recall and as such is immensely valuable, not least because the printed programme is devoted entirely to the composer with whom he was most closely associated and because, fine as are most of his studio recordings, Rubinstein played with a greater freedom and daring when in front of an audience.

The recital, minus the three non-Chopin encores, was released on a Revelation CD in 1996. The film of the occasion, preserved in the vaults of the Russian State television archives for nearly 50 years, provides a vivid reminder of this great artist’s idiosyncrasies – the dignified, immobile posture, the expressionless face and the little tug at his lapels before the start of each item.

The playing, of course, is heart-warming, the kind that can absorb the odd fluff, though the memory lapse in the Scherzo of the Sonata is disconcerting (he has to make an unwritten repeat before ad libbing his way into the Trio). Everything seems so inevitable and right, whether in the caressing phrases of the Barcarolle or the bravura of the A flat Polonaise, the inevitable trademark conclusion to any Rubinstein recital. Aficionados will relish his only known performance of the Aeolian Harp Study, Op 25 No 1. The bonuses are two short (1'45") silent films of excerpts from two études shot in slow motion in Canada in 1928.' Jeremy Nicholas (5/09)

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