Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)
Intermezzo in B flat, Op.117/2
Ballade in G minor, Op.23
Études, Op.25 – No.5 in E minor
Hungarian Rhapsody No.12 in C sharp minor
A prole do bebê – O polichinelo
Arthur Rubinstein (piano)
Recorded 20 April 1963 at a recital in Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: August 2008
CD No: MEDICI MASTERS
Duration: 81 minutes
The recital preserved here by “WDR The Cologne Broadcasts” was a major event in Holland – and Germany. Despite training in Germany, Arthur (Artur) Rubinstein had not played there since he was fourteen and given that almost his entire family had been butchered in the Holocaust, it was unlikely that he would ever do so again. So, unsurprisingly, pianist-fanciers made the journey across the border in droves. Rubinstein knew there would be Germans and, inevitably, Nazis, in the audience and this caused him grave anxiety. And yet the programme he chose was heavily Germanic and he deliberately picked Nijmegen because it was so close to the border.
Was there an element of forgiveness in this great pianist’s choice of location and repertoire? We shall never know, but there isn’t a bar in this glorious recital that does not burn with enormous conviction and belief. Yes, there are wrong notes and occasionally Rubinstein’s rhythmic command is slightly unsteady, but this is still absolutely remarkable playing and frankly, mind-blowing, given that he was seventy-six years old.
The opening movement of the ‘Appassionata’ seethes, with numerous small tempo changes and pauses. The rise and fall in the phrasing of the second subject is exceptional and you might wait for another hundred years to hear a more beautifully sculpted account of the Adagio’s opening theme. Rubinstein’s command of rubato, tonal nuance, and dynamics, is absolute and profoundly moving. Each Variation is a reverie. Romantic it certainly is, but it is also Beethoven-playing of the highest order. In the Allegro ma non troppo finale there is power, passion and – yes – anger. One almost hopes the repeat of the development (as unusually indicated) won’t be taken, such is the tension, but taken it is and the chords are driven home, the notes punched out and the coda brings no release, just fury. This is a magnificent, frighteningly intense account of the work. Rubinstein then eases the tension with a well-nigh-perfect account of the Brahms Intermezzo, which flows by with exquisite rubato and touch.
Schumann’s Carnaval is, to put it mildly, muscular. ‘Préambule’ is fast and angular; ‘Arlequin’ is a very stroppy individual, but the following ‘Valse noble’ is superbly nuanced; and ‘Eusebius’ has a naïve delicacy with more rubato applied to it than I have ever heard. The tempo and dynamics in ‘Florestan’ change constantly, but never impede the flow. Sections eleven to fifteen are tense and driven: I’m not sure it’s what the composer intended, but it does work. Yet ‘Chopin’ is meltingly liquid, as is the middle section of ‘Reconnaissance’. ‘Aveu’ and ‘Promenade’ are master-classes in Schumann-playing. Rarely will you find such suppleness of rhythm, such control of micro-dynamics and such control of tempo. In the brief ‘Pause’ and concluding ‘March’ once again the attack is ferocious; indeed ‘Massacre of the Philistines’ would be a more apt description! Not a performance of Carnaval I would want to listen to every day, but once heard, never forgotten.
You will seldom hear such a volatile yet rapturous account of this Chopin Ballade. The opening is tempestuous, but varied in expression (once again it is control of rubato, dynamics, touch and tempo) the slow interlude is beautifully realised at a flowing tempo and the coda blazes. One suspect’s that if a student played like this today, at some prestigious academy entrance audition, they would be shown the door. Such has been the decline in Chopin-playing over the last decade. This is an object-lesson in the art of playing the composer and playing the piano; as is the chosen Étude, which is grotesquely witty at a slow tempo, with a central section that undulates in a highly unsettling manner – again, once heard, never forgotten.
To call the Liszt outrageous would be an understatement! This is old-school pianism at its finest. Forget modern ‘taste’ and decorum and listen to a master musician weaving webs of sound and seemingly throwing caution to the wind. It is actually very moving to hear such exhilarating, spontaneous command of an instrument and exactly the same can be said of the Villa-Lobos encore.
The sound is not ideal. There is little sense of space around the instrument, a lack of true bass and body and the treble is rather aggressive. However I am sure the best has been done with the source material. And, anyway, the sound does not seriously detract from the profound pleasure to be gained from these great performances.