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Not available in the USA

CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.18 (1901) [29:23]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op.43 (1934) [22:09]
Prelude in C sharp minor, op.3 no.2 (1892) [4:22]
Arthur Rubinstein (piano)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Golschmann (Piano Concerto No.2)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Walter Susskind (Rhapsody)
rec. Carnegie Hall, New York, USA, 27 May 1946 (Piano Concerto No.2); EMI Abbey Road Studio No.1, London, UK, 16-17 September 1947 (Rhapsody); RCA Studios, Hollywood, USA, 11 December 1950 (prelude)


Experience Classicsonline

A well known anecdote has it that a visitor to New York, having lost his way, approached Arthur Rubinstein in the street and asked “Pardon me, sir,
but how do I get to Carnegie Hall?" - to which the maestro immediately replied "Practice, practice, practice." 

Well, I doubt that “practice, practice, practice” was on the timetable much before this 1946 recording of Rachmaninoff’s ubiquitous concerto because Rubinstein’s performance here is, quite frankly, riddled with slapdash technique. 

The root problem may well have been his condescending attitude to Rachmaninoff as a composer. “I fall”, he once wrote, “… under the charm of his compositions when I hear them but return home with a slight distaste for their too brazenly expressed sweetness”. 

But the fact that RCA producers allocated only a brief, single session and a less than front rank conductor to the project also suggests that, especially after the failure to release a flawed Rubinstein/Stokowski recording made less than 12 months before, they were keen to get the product out quickly rather than especially carefully. 

My own suspicion is that some bright spark at RCA also simply hoped to cash in on the fact that, just the previous year, Tin Pan Alley hacks Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman had achieved a hit popular song for Frank Sinatra by setting particularly banal words to the concerto’s big tune: “Full moon and empty arms / The moon is there for us to share / But where are you?”. 

Whatever the reason for Rubinstein’s remarkably careless approach, it inevitably means that this performance cannot be regarded as an authoritative account, either of the concerto itself or of Rubinstein’s artistry. It is, in fact, far better listened to as if it were a recording of how the pianist might have given an exciting one-off live performance, warts and all. And, let me concede at once, this is a very thrilling account that, with fast tempos throughout, would have had a real audience, no doubt mentally singing along to “Full moon and empty arms”, jumping out of their seats with enthusiasm. 

Listening to a CD at home and repeatedly, though, means that it is hard to overlook moments – or, indeed, whole musical paragraphs - where a greater degree of contrast, emotional reflection and sheer sensibility would have been more appropriate. To take just a single instance, the section from 6:49 in the finale sounds, to my ears, quite grotesquely hurried: when compared to the classic Rachmaninoff/Stokowski 1929 recording, it is obvious how much extra magical atmosphere is added by the earlier performers’ more carefully controlled dynamics and more reflective tempos. Perhaps Rubinstein, as well as whipping up all that excitement, was desperately trying to avoid anything that might be construed as that dreaded “brazenly expressed sweetness”? 

The soloist was again paired with a rather journeyman conductor, this time Walter Susskind, when he recorded the op.43 Rhapsody the following year, this time for EMI. The artistic result was rather more satisfactory – indeed, Rubinstein’s restraint in the famous Variation XVIII makes it arguably even more effective than usual - but it is hard to see, from a purely musical point of view, why anyone would choose this version over any other. 

What was quite rightly picked up by reviewers at the time, however, was the excellent quality of the recorded sound from Abbey Road Studio no.1. One critic, quoted in Jonathan Summers’s very useful notes, rated it as “[s]tunning! ... almost too vivid … larger than life … I really had to go outside on the landing, where I liked it still better” and then suggested that this recording might even mark the point where “recorders are reaching the limit of what one can stand in the ordinary small drawing-room”. Apparently rather frightened by that, the records show that EMI engineers made a note to “reduce level of dangerous passages” before the discs were released! 

Rubinstein only ever recorded one of Rachmaninoff’s solo piano pieces – the C sharp minor Prelude – and the version we have here was his second attempt. Again, it is a perfectly fine interpretation but not one to pick off the shelves in preference to many others. As an encore here, though. it does its job well.

Given, though, that, taken together, the concerto and the Rhapsody clock in at less than 52 minutes, ought we to have been expecting something more substantial than just an encore at that point? I know that this is a bargain price disc – but does a bargain cease to be a real one if the product itself is, unlike that Sinatra moon, not much more than half full?

Rob Maynard


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