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The Rubinstein Collection Vol.15

RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No.2
TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No.1
Recorded 1946
RCA Red Seal 09026 63015-2 [62']
Crotchet   £8.50  Amazon UK  £8.99  Amazon US $11.97

The Rubinstein Collection Vol.20

SCHUMANN Carnaval/Fantasiestücke etc
Recorded 1949/53
RCA Red Seal 09026 63020-2 [77' ]
Crotchet   £8.50  Amazon UK   £8.99  Amazon US

For ten years after this recording was made Rubinstein's account of Rachmaninov's Second Concerto was a best-seller in the catalogue. He had recorded it a year earlier with Stokowski and the Hollywood Bowl orchestra but the result was not passed for release. Vladimir Golschmann, accompanying him here with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, was the long-time conductor in St Louis and generally keeps in touch with his soloist in this most rubato-ridden of warhorse-concertos. Rubinstein combines virtuosity with subtlety. Those introductory solo piano chords grow to such a dynamic extent that his playing seems as if it will burst through the speakers before the orchestra joins in. The solo flute (with a vibrato less common nowadays) and (the slightly breathless) clarinet are accompanied with due sensitivity, but the strings' pizzicato is rather dry in the background. Resonance is sparse throughout but one can only marvel at Rubinstein's exhilarating temperament and phenomenal technique, although one can sense a smell of burning brake rubber a minute or two after he sets off at a rate of knots in the finale as he attempts to rein it all in a bit.

His recording of Tchaikovsky's first concerto was also a second one, though the first (with Barbirolli in 1932) had appeared in the shops, and three more would follow (one banned by Rubinstein 'because I played it too badly'). It's an expansive account from those first rising chords and the partnership with the ascetic Mitropoulos a more deeply felt one, possibly because the Greek conductor was also a fabulous pianist who had been a pupil of Busoni. He and Rubinstein concertized often, though this is the only studio collaboration they made. Again the orchestral sound in the ritornelli has a tendency to a total lack of sheen and bloom, particularly in the heavy brass and the dull thud of timpani, but this is the consequence of the transfer process. Not all the slips (to which Rubinstein gradually became more and more prone as the years progressed) are ironed out but in this day and age of recordings taken from live performances (pace the BBC Legends series) this is now becoming more and more acceptable. Rubinstein used to joke that his role was to make amends for the behaviour of his namesake (but no relation), Nicholas Rubinstein, who had dismissed the concerto as unplayable. From the evidence of his playing Arthur did that and more besides. One curiosity is the F as the third note in the flute's melody at the start of the Andantino, made the more curious by Rubinstein's answer on the piano with the higher note of Bb. This is the so-called 'Artot contour', but no place here to go into it suffice to say that it may have been a coded reference to the one near physical relationship he had with a woman (the singer Desiree Artot) and her initials AD, the interval of a fourth, coded in music. Nowadays both instruments play the same version.  

Speaking of coded messages or names in music, the greatest exponent of that quirky behaviour was Schumann and his solo piano music, particularly Carnaval, which features on records from the earliest days in the hands of such performers as Sauer, Cortot and Rachmaninov. Rubinstein, despite frequently programming this extended suite of scenes from a masked ball, took until 1953 before he committed his interpretation to disc. It is a tender account, but alternately dramatic too. His innate genial capacity to switch mood effortlessly is underlined in the wondrous playing of the central trio of pieces entitled Chopin, Estrella, Reconnaissance, Pantalon et Colombine respectively. It all ends in a blaze of Beethovenian quotation as David marches fearlessly against the Philistines. A rare transfer (from a 7" 45 rpm disc originally entitled 'Rubinstein plays Schumann') is also included on the CD and consists of three pieces, Novellette Op.21 No.1, Nachtstück Op.23 No.4 and the Romance Op.28 No.2, all recorded at the same October/December sessions as Carnaval. They make for compulsive listening, particularly the deceptively simple sounding Nachtstück which we all think we can play, and the mellow 'thumbs' melody of the Romance in which Rubinstein's hands sing. An earlier (1949) magical recording of the Fantasiestücke completes this highly recommended disc which, with the two concertos in another volume, is part of RCA's formidable project to bring together in an 81-set Arthur Rubinstein Collection everything he ever recorded between 1928 and 1976. On the showing of these two - so far so good.

Christopher Fifield

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