Beethoven
Piano Sonata No.3 in C, Op.2/3
Ravel
Valses nobles et sentimentales
Chopin
Nocturne in D flat, Op.27/2; Ballade in G minor, Op.23; Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante, Op.22
Arthur Rubinstein (piano)

Recorded in the Concert Hall, Broadcasting House, London on 17 March 1963; and – Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante – on 6 October 1959
CD No: ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5095
Duration: 73 minutes
Reviewed: March 2013
Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) always figures in the top ten great pianists. Listening to these performances it isn’t difficult to hear why. There is a command of style and technique, a profound sense of rightness, and an expressive voice given to only a few. Rubinstein was not particularly associated with Ravel, or the piano sonatas of Beethoven, but had recorded both these works for RCA in January 1963 (LSC 2751 and LSC 2812). With these, and Chopin Nocturne, the first thing you notice is the sound; although in mono, a much fuller, more realistic reproduction is captured than could be the case much later, such as on ICA’s release of Shura Cherkassky playing Chopin’s piano concertos. For this Rubinstein only an upward dynamic extension is lacking and there is an occasional hint of pitch fluctuation, and a halo of static on some of the upper frequencies in the Ravel, but nothing too distracting.
These renditions are magnificent. Rubinstein makes the first subject of the Beethoven dance, beautifully lightens the touch in the cantando, bel legato second subject – without any relaxation of tempo – and when he repeats the exposition there are subtle changes of emphasis in every paragraph. Coming from a generation that hadn’t been infected with ‘authenticity’, Rubinstein isn’t afraid near the start of the development to use the full-pedal for the sf four-part bass chords that underpin the florid statement of the four-semiquaver motif that features so prominently throughout the movement, nor is he afraid to use rubato and occasional tempo-variation to shape phrases. It is difficult to imagine anything more beautiful than his playing of the Adagio, here broad and flexible, the final note of a bar or phrase will be held – thereby colouring the pauses and ensuing note. The second theme has the same marking as its counterpart in the first movement; with no change of tempo Rubinstein truly sings it. Without destroying the line, or sounding overtly romantic, he seems to improvise the entire movement. The ensuing scherzo is light and witty. The theme is repeated before the trio, which gives Rubinstein the chance to vary the phrasing, while the trio itself is made to sound Brahmsian, an exact description for his way with the finale’s second subject, preceded by a crisp, swift statement of the first idea, the accelerando at bar 87 made excitingly quixotic. Throughout there is a sense of dance and many exquisite touches – which belongs to a now-lost age of Beethoven interpretation.
Mention of the dance brings us to Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. Here the composer varies an idée fixe of two eighth notes, followed by a quarter, plays around with the strength of the beat, blurs the bar-lines, leaves harmonies unresolved, and keeps textures spare and clean, which is aurally unsettling, and gives the performer nowhere to hide. The pianist can’t rely on superficial virtuosity, but has to conjure up a wide palette of tonal, dynamic and rhythmic shading. For players of Rubinstein’s era this was easier, since the instruments they used were far more responsive to touch than bland modern Steinways, and they knew that expressiveness, not clinical detachment, is at the heart of music-making. The opening bars are very strict and percussive, ensuing tempo variations controlled without interfering with unstoppable momentum. In the second section Rubinstein isn’t afraid to introduce unmarked fortes to emphasis the rhythm; and, later, rubato is beautifully judged. The Sixth piece is made to sound syncopated, and the final page of the penultimate Waltz is played more forcefully than marked, but the approach works and creates an obviously intentional contrast with the mysterious, emotionally ambiguous ‘Epilogue’. There is a compelling sense of progression and logic, and expressive licence is only ever used to illuminate the score.
Rubinstein’s Chopin is the stuff of legend. The Nocturne flows effortlessly with gorgeous touch, the pulse – tempo is too crude a word – has a magical sense of ebb and flow, and the final twenty bars are breathtakingly rapt. The G minor Ballade is immensely authoritative. What makes the music-making so compelling is Rubinstein’s innate ability to combine power and attack with poetry and grace, without sacrificing line and structure. Unfortunately there are passages where there is more wow and flutter than heard earlier in the recital. The Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise is termed as a “bonus”. Despite the earlier date, the sound is again excellent. Rubinstein gives another masterclass in playing Chopin – some of the runs and arpeggios are so beautifully voiced that it is difficult not to purr with contentment.

 

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