The title 'Legendary Rubinstein!' seems absolutely right for a Chopin
recital from the great pianist but be warned. Various marketing departments
have used this title several times before, as a cursory glance at
the results of an internet search will confirm. This collection of
three CDs featuring the complete Nocturnes and Mazurkas is actually
an historical issue of recordings dating from the late 1930s. Rubinstein's
career extended right up towards his death in 1982. Curiously for
a tribute album, nowhere does the accompanying booklet give his dates.
That said, in many respects the booklet is rather good. With so many
shorter pieces - there are no fewer than 19 Nocturnes and 51 Mazurkas
- the listings of the tracks and the identification of the compositions
need to be clearly articulated and laid out on the page, as indeed
they are. The details of the recordings, the re-masterings and the
engineers are all included, though inevitably some details of these
have disappeared with the passing of so many years. There is an admirable
essay by Max Harrison, which explains Rubinstein's career in the context
of the 1930s when these recordings were made. This then proceeds to
introduce the music generally in a lucid and informative manner. Too
often these 'tribute albums' concentrate solely on the artist in their
booklet notes - the recent Klemperer Bruckner collection, also from
EMI, being a case in point. Here the balance between artist and music
is perfectly judged, and is a model of its kind.
Essentially there are two issues to consider about these recorded
performances, and they amount to the music and the recorded sound.
The piano sound is accurate but the re-masterings generally opt for
this priority over that of atmosphere. Consequently the sound is somewhat
unforgiving, except that occasionally - as in the F sharp Nocturne
Op. 15 No. 2 - there is a 'frying tonight' background. The same is
true of the Mazurkas, whose sound is admirably clear, if allowance
is made regarding atmosphere.
The set forms a complete collection and is valuable in that regard,
especially at bargain price. Moreover, Rubinstein had studied the
music afresh at this stage of the career and the performances are
thoughtful, imaginative and peerless. All that is lacking is subtlety
of piano sound, and with it the subtlety of dynamic shading that only
a more modern recording could provide. Rubinstein himself did make
such recordings in the post-war era.
To conclude: this collection offers excellent value and wonderful
performances, but it comes with a health warning about the quality
of the recorded sound.