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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat op.83 [40:97] (1)
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor op. 23 [31:05] (2)
Arthur Rubinstein (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Albert Coates (1), John Barbirolli (2)
rec. 22-23 October 1919, Kingsway Hall, London (1), 9-10 June 1932, Abbey Road Studio no. 1, London (2)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111271
[71:12]

 

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This recording of Brahms 2 was my introduction to the work. Not because I date back to 1929 or thereabouts but because the somewhat odd selection of LPs in my school music room had no Brahms concertos of any description. But it did have these ancient 78s and they knocked me for six.

Sometimes the recording that introduces you to a masterpiece remains your benchmark for life. I daresay this recording caused my preference for a free-flowing Brahms 2 over a majestic one or – heaven help us – a “public monument” one. But I must say I experienced no particular thrill of recognition, or sense of homecoming, on hearing it again. It’s a swift performance, knocking several inches of girth from the composer’s usual tubby image. But there nevertheless seems plenty of time for warmth and affection, from Coates even more than from Rubinstein, I sometimes thought. If individual phrases have not stuck in my mind, I do wonder if such an approach, structurally cogent as it is, really leaves much space for memorable shaping of the phrases. Both artists are more ones for speeding up than for slowing down. I could have done without the hell-for-leather scamper through the final pages.

I don’t have any of Rubinstein’s later recordings, but I have an off-the-air version that is probably fairly typical of the many that must exist in radio archives around the world, made with André Cluytens in Turin (4 May 1962). Bootleg versions have appeared, I believe. In all truth, it is only in the third movement that the later performance is substantially slower:

 

I

II

III

IV

TT

1929/Coates

14:35

08:14

09:20

07:59

40:07

1962/Cluytens

16:10

08:46

12:15

08:45

45:58

On this showing Cluytens, too, was a free-flowing Brahmsian, and for much of the time I was left thinking how similar it all was in spite of the 33 years that had passed. It is true that a few passages that appeared positively manic in the first movement in 1929 manage not do so in 1962 thanks to the extra space Rubinstein allows himself but a good deal of the old impetuousness remains. Even in the third movement, after Cluytens has presided over a leisurely but not dragging exposition of the famous cello solo, Rubinstein seems more inclined to move on than to lose himself in rapt meditation. A good deal of pleasure is to be had from Rubinstein’s Brahms 2, early or late, but it was and remained a slightly reductive take on the work.

After a purposeful opening from Barbirolli, Rubinstein’s first solo passage in the Tchaikovsky relaxes the tempo ever so slightly to allow a touch of elegance. Tempi are pretty fast throughout but the result, unlike the manic Horowitz/Toscanini version, is light and scintillating. For once the main theme of the first movement Allegro is accented properly. Slight divergences in phrasing between pianist and orchestra suggest that Barbirolli would have been glad to dig into the music more, but Rubinstein seems unwilling to find more than charm and joi-de-vivre in it. According to its lights, the performance is brilliantly successful, but it is a little disconcerting to find a Tchaikovsky concerto yielding no more passion than one by Saint-Saëns.

Here again, I have only an off-the-air version as evidence of Rubinstein’s later views on this work. This, too, is from Turin, conducted by Pietro Argento (17 May 1968). The differences are greater than they appear from the timings:

 

I

II

III

TT

1932/Barbirolli

17:52

06:59

06:13

31:05

1966/Argento

19:40

07:39

07:18

34:37

The trouble is, this same Turin orchestra which produced passably professional results for Cluytens comes near to scuppering the proceedings with Argento on the rostrum. Rubinstein appears to be employing a much wider range of tempo than before, particularly in the first movement. But when, following an intolerably humdrum presentation of the second theme by the wind band, the great man enters at a notably slower tempo, giving an exquisite lesson in phrasing, is this really his 1966 interpretation or his reaction to the situation in which he found himself, an attempt to restore beauty to a performance that risked falling flat?

In spite of everything, there are signs that Rubinstein’s interpretation of this concerto had evolved and had become more interesting than before. However, this is a matter which I can only address via his “official” recordings, or a live version more suitably accompanied.

In certain works – much Chopin of course, but not only Chopin – Rubinstein was the complete interpreter, revealing the depths below the surface elegance. In particular, I would point to his stereo versions of the Chopin Nocturnes. In Brahms and Tchaikovsky his desire to give pleasure seems to shield him from the depths others have found. But Rubinstein is always Rubinstein and it is difficult to look the other way when he is playing.

Mark Obert-Thorn, the producer, mentions the difficulties presented by the Brahms. The results of his wrestlings sound as good as we may reasonably expect for the venerable age of the recording, but it is true that the Tchaikovsky sounds more than three years more recent. Curious, too, that in those three years the use of portamento by the LSO strings had diminished remarkably.

Christopher Howell

see also Review by Rob Maynard

 





 


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