Rubinstein plays Chopin, Vol.1
The year 1937 witnessed the birth of numerous distinguished piano recordings from the HMV stable: Schnabel's Schubert A major, Landowska's Coronation Concerto, Cortot's Davidsbundlertanze, Dame Myra Hess's Schumann Concerto and Rubinstein's first set of Chopin Nocturnes. Ten of the Nocturnes had in fact been recorded during the previous year, but 1937 saw the remaining nine—plus the First Concerto—captured on wax. By that time, HMV were well on the way to completing their survey of Chopin's major piano works, with Cortot in the Ballades, Preludes, major sonatas, Waltzes and Etudes (see BM's review of Cortot CD reissues on various labels, 6/92), and Rubinstein in the Nocturnes, Scherzos and—subsequently—Mazurkas. I think it's fair to say that, taken overall, it was and remains the most satisfying Chopin cycle ever recorded by a single company, with Rubinstein's Nocturnes and Cortot's Preludes providing its precious centre-piece.
Of course, Rubinstein went on to record the Nocturnes on two further occasions, in the 1940s and 1960s (the 'middle' set, never before reissued, is scheduled for release on RCA Gold Seal before long), but his 1936-7 cycle still serves as a yardstick for all subsequent rivals. Listening to just two, namely Op. 37 No. 2 and Op. 48 No. 1, is enough to arouse excitement. The former has a unique finesse and drama, especially where Rubinstein returns from a stormy and heroic central section without as much as a hair out of place, while the latter is full of the most natural and telling rubato, aided by perfect timing and inimitable refinement of tone. Although his later versions could boast virtually as much composure, they hadn't quite this degree of ardour and inner tension.
The First Concerto is similarly stylish, its outer movements full of brilliant but often subtle fingerwork, its Romanze coolly poetic. The Second is perhaps less wholly satisfying; although undeniably a virtuoso, the Rubinstein of 1931 hadn't quite balanced impulse and control with the precision timing that he achieved a few years later. Cortot, also with Barbirolli, but slightly later (EMI, 6/92), is far more memorable. There's an extra, too—an elegant performance of the C sharp minor Waltz, clean-fingered and particularly winning, and although earlier than any other recording in the set, somehow more prophetic than its companions of the 'aristocratic' Rubinstein of post-war years. It just goes to show that chronology isn't always a reliable gauge for artistic development. Andrew Walter's transfers are superb, but some 78 surfaces are more pronounced than others.'