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Fryderyk CHOPIN

51 Mazurkas, opp.6, 7, 17, 24, 30, 33, 41, 50, 56, 59, 63, 67, 68, "A son ami Emile Gaillard" in a, "Notre temps" in a (rec. 1938-1939, London, Abbey Road)
3 Mazurkas, opp.33/2, 56/3, 63/1 (not no.3 as stated in the booklet) (rec. 1932, 1930, 1932, London)
2 Valses, opp.34/1, 64/2 (rec. 1928, 1930, London, Small Queen's Hall)
Artur Rubinstein (pianoforte)
NAXOS 8.110656-57 [2 CDs: 66.34; 70.14]
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The sound is remarkably good for its age. The hymn-like homophony of op. 68/3 revealed a touch of wow not otherwise particularly evident and in general there is body, bloom and a fair dynamic range. Surface noise has been virtually eliminated. I haven't been able to compare these transfers with others but I did make comparisons with the versions of some of these pieces by Ignaz Friedman as transferred onto an Opal LP where the philosophy was very much "tell-it-as-it-is". In spite of the heavy surface noise I sometimes felt closer to the real pianist - going back to the Rubinstein versions I was conscious of a certain artificiality. However, the more listener-friendly CEDAR processing employed by Naxos is more likely to bring these historical performances within the reach of non-specialist buyers.

Here, then, is the first of Rubinstein's three versions of the complete Mazurkas, plus even earlier versions of three of them and a couple of Waltzes for good measure. This was the first time the Mazurkas had been recorded complete by anybody and Rubinstein himself had learnt many of them specially for the occasion. The booklet quotes a letter he wrote to the Gramophone Company in which he admits that he had "viewed the job with apprehension, thinking it would be difficult to cast myself into just the right expression of so many works, every one of which has a distinct characteristic", but found that "both Mr Gaisberg [the producer] and myself became more and more enthusiastic with every new Mazurka."

The recordings were made in 5 sessions, 9 Mazurkas on November 13th 1938, then three crowded days from December 12th-14th 1938 at which were recorded respectively another 10, 20 (!) and 8. Finally, a session on May 10th 1939 completed the remaining four, including the re-recording of the three which Rubinstein had recorded a few years earlier. The Mazurkas were not recorded in any special order and were issued in three albums, each planned as a "programme" rather than chronologically. Naxos have reassembled the recordings in order of opus number and I suppose that is a logical choice although personally, wishing to follow Rubinstein through his pilgrimage as closely as possible, I listened to them in the order in which they were recorded (the booklet is very clear on all this) even if it meant jumping back and forth from one CD to the other.

It would be interesting to know which were the Mazurkas new to Rubinstein but I imagine this information has disappeared into the mists of time. We can imagine, when he finishes the December 12th session with wonderfully poised performances of op.33/4 and op.50/3, that these were old favourites, and we can suspect from the stilted movement of op.17/3 earlier the same day that he was still coming to terms with the piece. And when he ends the marathon session on December 13th with a clutch of the early, posthumous pieces, there is a suspicion that this is not much more than superior sight-reading, and he concluded the day with an almost belligerently uncomprehending a son ami Emile Gaillard. Nine years earlier Ignaz Friedman had shown what riches a real labour of love can extract from op.67/3-4 and, especially op.68/2 which is very plain indeed from Rubinstein. But this latter is from the December 14th session which seems to have found him below form throughout. Op.41/3 is clipped and the major section of op.59/3 sounds confused (Horowitz was later to provide a wonderful elucidation of this). "Notre Temps" is a particularly glaring example of a rhythmic weakness which in attenuated form bedevilled his playing systematically at this time in his career; a tendency to scuffle over a group of triplets as if it were a mordant, thereby foreshortening the beat. In this Mazurka all the passages containing left-hand triplets fall out of shape in a welter of bars with about two-and-a-half beats in them.

Having put on record some of the less satisfactory moments, let me emphasise that there are many, many wonderful ones, such as the superb poise of op.24/3, the ardour of op.56/1 and the verve of op.59/1. And when Rubinstein has the measure of a piece, he invariably convinces as a whole, whereas Friedman tends to mix insights with infuriating moments almost from bar to bar. When you put Friedman's pitiless rhythmic mauling-about of op.33/4 alongside Rubinstein's poise you realise why Rubinstein had to come and why he was perhaps consciously risking the odd prosaic moment as a price to be paid for respecting the text. Very often, too, even where Friedman is wholly convincing (his op.7/2 arrives like a cry from afar), Rubinstein's more limpid warmth is just as attractive in its way. What you can say is that Friedman, by fair means or foul, takes these pieces out into the fields among the peasants with their hurdy-gurdies and their more primitive emotions while with Rubinstein one always has the image of a pianist sitting in a room with a roof over his head (the two Waltzes, real indoor music, are glorious). From this point of view Horowitz, in such Mazurkas as he recorded (but what about that Brunswick LP of c.1950 that none of us have ever heard?) is more successful in maintaining the outdoors feeling without playing fast and loose with the text (he could be mischievously personal over articulation and dynamics but rhythmically he was absolutely rigorous). And incidentally Gieseking, who could be listless or even cavalier in Chopin, was unforgettable in op.17/4.

However, of the pianists who have recorded the Mazurkas complete (or virtually, for there is a handful of additional early Mazurkas which may not have been known in the 1930s) it is Rubinstein who shows the greatest insight into the greatest number of them. This first encounter is an important moment in the history of the gramophone and in the development of 20th Century musical taste generally. It showed that Chopin was a composer deserving of the utmost respect both in the sense that his music was worth attention as a whole not just in bits and pieces and in the sense that the texts themselves were not starting points for personal rhapsody but were to be approached with no less rigour than Mozart or Beethoven. Friedman, Paderewski and a host of other specialists many of whom claimed some special pedigree for their insights and for their misdemeanours (pupil-of-pupil-of-Chopin …) had all pointed in the opposite direction. Chopin interpretation was changed for ever and all pianists owe the deepest debt to Rubinstein for this.

Christopher Howell

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