Rubinstein plays Chopin
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 (EMI, 10/93) 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 ‘canons 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 will 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 A major Polonaise’s colours 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 or a bird flies through the air, 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 a bargain price…'