Rubinstein in August

Sky over Pasadena, evening. (Image by the author)

Southern Califonia felt its first inkling of sweater weather this afternoon. And a welcome surprise it was! It was a lovely, if likely all too brief respite from the heat and humidity that has gripped the region for the past three weeks was. Nevertheless, having been in an enclosed space writing for most of the day, I was caught off guard when I stepped out earlier this evening, pleasant though the coolness was. 

Changes in weather often provoke changes in listening for me. Delius, Debussy, and Ravel in the spring and summer; Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner in autumn and winter. So upon arriving home, with a purple-grey sky looming outside my windows, I decided that it was a fine time to play a handful of albums by a pianist that I hadn’t heard in awhile: Artur Rubinstein. 

It may be too much to say that I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Rubinstein’s work. The best of his best recordings are certainly well loved by me: His recording of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 with Fritz Reiner in Chicago, the clutch of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces he recorded in the late 1940s, his album of French piano music—which includes perhaps the most immaculately sculpted and beautifully shaded readings of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales on records. His elegant, pearlescent tone is recognizable at once and always utterly beguiling. 

Nevertheless, sometimes that’s all one gets. His Chopin recordings which, arguably, are considered among the highlights of his work, suffer most from this problem. Take his last recordings of the Chopin Nocturnes, which I sampled a few tracks from to start the evening with. In my estimation, the only sets one needs of thee works are Ivan Moravec (Nonesuch and Supraphon) for proto-Debussyan atmospheric dreaminess (nobody better conveys the hazy beauty, to say nothing of the sheer audacity of the new world of sound portended in the Nocturne in B-flat minor, Op. 9, no. 1—a work whose dazzling achievement is made all the more so when one considers that it was composed a scant three years after Beethoven’s death) and Earl Wild (Ivory Classics and Brilliant Classics) for Chopin as wordless bel canto. Rubinstein sounds comparatively flat, even terse. This is music that cries out for poetry and flowing script. Instead he’a capable only of curt prose in Times New Roman. 

Perhaps it was a matter of the music and composer being too dear to him. Chopin was, after all, a fellow Pole, and it may have been this factor that, ironically enough, led him to want to keep his cool in this music. Not for him to wallow in the music of his countryman. There are moments when in this set—such as his reading of the Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, no. 1—when the feeling of the pianist walking a tightrope of controlled expressivity is almost palpable. Yet control quickly becomes rigid, poise gives way to staidness. The tighrope act, while successful, is executed with little flair, leaving the audience wondering what the big deal was all about.  

I followed that up with his album of four of the most famous Beethoven piano sonatas. What a world of difference! What had been icy and stiff in the Chopin is warm and utterly natural here. It’s a great pity that Rubinstein didn’t record more Beethoven sonatas. His sense of architecture and affinity for introspection would have made him ideal in the late sonatas. (The final movement of Piano Sonata No. 30, with its Chopinesque prefigurations, would have been well-suited to his temperament.) 

The control and flawless sense of line in the opening movement of the Piano Sonata No. 14 “Moonlight” is a veritable masterclass in pedaling and voicing. Moreover, Rubinstein’s grasp of the piece’s structure is total, with the entire arch of this movement being revealed in a single long breath. Power, carefully harnessed then dispatched, is on ample display in the finale. Listen to the cleanness of the rising scalar runs, his masterly dynamic shadings, the strength of the stinging sforzandi that punctuate, but should never overwhelm this music. 

His recording of the Piano Sonata No. 8 “Pathétique” is on the same exalted level. One could even argue that it’s better. The way in which he unspools the thread of the sonata’s slow movement, creating the illusion that the score is playing itself, simply leaves the listener grasping for superlatives. He achieves here what had eluded him in the Chopin: Classical restraint and aplomb married with judiciously chosen moments of Romantic expressiveness. If ever one needed a reminder as to why Rubinstein has earned his place among the very greatest in the pianistic pantheon, this recording is it. 

As the album draws to an end, I peer out the window and see that night has descended in the meantime. Sitting alone, as I hear the last notes of the Piano Sonata No. 23 “Appassionata” mingle with the scratchings of my cats in the living room, I find myself grateful for Artur Rubinstein: An imperfect messenger of Chopin, an ideal conduit for the serenity and storminess of Beethoven. A genuine artist whose flaws and shortcomings provoke and defy, fascinate and infuriate. Would that more artists today strove towards the greatness of his successes, as well as his flaws; strove towards the essential humanity that abounds in his art—and is sorely lacking today. 

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