With this four-CD set of the Nocturnes, Mazurkas and Scherzos Naxos completes its bargain reissue of Rubinstein’s 1932-39 HMV Chopin recordings. At the risk of sparking controversy, I can only say that such playing makes a mockery of present-day standards. A reminder of the cruel adage ‘if it is not done easily it is not worth doing’, all these performances prove that Rubinstein played the piano as naturally as a bird flies or a fish swims. He was, quite 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.
Rubinstein’s Mazurkas are equally 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.
Finally the Scherzos, played with an outrageous but enthralling disregard for safety. Only a pedant will underline the odd mis-hit or pock-mark within the context of such sky-rocketing bravura and poetic impulse. As an added bonus there are additional recordings of three Mazurkas and two Waltzes, the A flat Op 34 No 1 alive with dizzying virtuoso trickery. The sleeve-note writer may comically mistake the Mazurkas for the Polonaises in referring to Schumann’s oft-misquoted description, ‘guns [sic ] buried in flowers’, but that is a mere spot on Naxos’s blazing sun. No more life-affirming Chopin exists