ICA Classics – Arthur Rubinstein [Brahms Piano Concerto 2 and solo works]

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Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Rhapsody in B minor, Op.79/1
Capriccio in F sharp minor, Op.76/2
Nocturne in D flat, Op.27/2
Waltz in C sharp minor, Op.64/2
El amor brujo – Ritual Fire Dance

Arthur Rubinstein (piano)

Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester [Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra]
Christoph von Dohnányi

Concerto recorded 23 May 1966 in Zurich; solo items from 20 April 1963 in Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: March 2011
Duration: 75 minutes



International Classical Artists is the new home for material that would have been issued by BBC Legends and Medici Arts. This current Arthur Rubinstein issue combines Brahms’s B flat Piano Concerto with previously unreleased items from a recital he gave in Nijmegen (the remainder of that concert is already available on Medici Masters MM029-2; there’s a link to my review below).On this ICA release the (mono) sound is excellent. In the concerto the overall balance is recessed – but still immediate – and there is breadth, weight and detail. As is usually the case, the piano is too prominent, but its image is full and defined, which allows the listener to appreciate Rubinstein’s exceptional range of tone colours and use of the pedals. There is however a hint of pitch instability, most obvious in the woodwind section. The opening of the Brahms is a dialogue between horn, piano, woodwind and strings. The horn is far too literal, and the woodwinds and strings are insecure. After the soloist’s opening cadenza, the orchestra launches into a prosaic tutti, Christoph von Dohnányi seeming to be not interested in the music. Only in the coda does he – and thereby the orchestra – really come alive.

No allowances need to be made for Rubinstein’s age (he was 78) who gives a titanic performance of the very demanding piano part. In that opening dialogue, the use of the pedals is (as marked) minimal and rubato strictly controlled. The cadenza opens at mezzo-forte and the delineation of inner-parts is exemplary. After the first tutti, the piano quells the orchestra with three huge chords and embarks on a leisurely examination of the first subject that leads to the second with variations of tempo (which are never extreme), dynamics, weight of attack, and some gorgeous rubato; the performance flows effortlessly forward. The second subject itself is limpidly Chopinesque and Rubinstein really makes the second half of the theme sing. All of these qualities inform Rubinstein’s playing of the development, where nothing is exaggerated, innumerable phrases and the various sub-themes are voiced in a totally unique way, and the coda grows naturally out of the whole movement and not just the quiet transition to it. There is nothing exaggerated either in the second movement, which is a true Allegro appassionato. Here the second theme is beautifully lilting and differently phrased when repeated. The orchestra is better, but when the string fanfares announce the ‘trio’, they lack bite and attack – they don’t exult. But Rubinstein just powers forward, highlighting inner voices, and rhythmic patterns, without sacrificing line or tension. If the opening horn solo was rather bland, then the slow movement’s introductory cello solo is almost devoid of feeling, the woodwind – and particularly the oboist – are even worse, the rest of the orchestra far too loud and the tempo too fast. When Rubinstein enters he slows everything down and then weaves a beautiful web of sound that seems to force some sensitivity from the conductor and when the cellist re-enters, he or she digs into the strings, lingers over notes and sings! When listening to Rubinstein live some of his pianism can be very violent and after a gentle statement of the finale’s first theme (there are six in all!) he erupts, only to relax again and yet the tension is palpable. He leans on upbeats; the fingering is very crisp, there is minimal use of pedal and pronounced sforzandos. The overall effect is imperiously commanding, rather than light-hearted. This is a great performance and one can only dream of what might have been if Barbirolli or Szell had been on the podium.

Three years earlier Rubinstein had given a concert in Nijmegen, this ICA release mopping-up the unpublished items. The sound (again mono) is excellent, warmer and with greater dynamic range than in the concerto, and the pitch is almost perfect and on a par with the Medici disc. The performances are again exceptional. Brahms’s Rhapsody is muscular, the second subject brings no huge change of tempo and yet whole phrases and paragraphs are re-shaped through rubato and variations of touch and dynamic. The Capriccio is given with wit, lilt and bounce. When the music relaxes, for the brief central section, there is some beautiful legato phrasing and the final thematic and rhythmic medley is a masterclass in the art of touch, delineation of line and the ability to completely eradicate any sense of there being bar-lines. Chopin was of course a Rubinstein speciality and this Nocturne is taken at a flowing tempo, is completely devoid of sentimentality, the conversation between the hands is extraordinarily refined and, as with all great musicians, you hear the work as if for the first time. The Waltz continues in the same mood, with a relaxed tempo for both themes and crystalline fingering. There is nothing flashy about the Falla. Rubinstein is not playing to the gallery, rather he emphasises the Iberian harmonies and colouring and lets the music speak for itself at a perfectly chosen tempo.

However, the booklet note is inadequate – consisting of a hymn of praise to Rubinstein and some rather dubious remarks about Cortot, Friedman, Horowitz and Rachmaninov. Fortunately the music-making is on an altogether higher plane. Letting the music speak for itself was central to Rubinstein’s interpretive ethic, yet because of his technique and charisma there was never any suggestion of blandness – and here we have a superbly engineered example of Rubinstein’s art.

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