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Frederick CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Complete (19) Nocturnes and Scherzi
Arthur Rubinstein (piano)
rec. 1932 (Scherzi) 1936-37 (Nocturnes), No. 3 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Naxos 8.110659-60 (2CDs) [132.27]
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Listed Comparisons
Complete (19) Nocturnes (EMI remastering) EMI CHS 7 64491-2
Rubinstein, (rec. 8/65), Philips Great Pianists, 456-955-2 (2CD)
Hofmann (4) (rec. 1923) Philips Great Pianists, 456-835-2 (2CD)
Hofmann (3) (rec. 28/11/37) Metropolitan Opera House, VAI Complete Hofmann Vol. 2 VAIA 1020
Friedman (Op 55/2) (rec. 12/36) No. 3 Studio, Abbey Road, London Philips Great Pianists, 456-784-2 (2CD)
Horszowski (Op 27) (rec. 6/83) BBC Music Magazine August 1993 Vol. 1/12
No. 1 B minor Op 20- Hofmann (rec. 1923) VAI Complete Hofmann Vol. 4 VAIA 1047
- Kitain (rec. 27. 6. 38) No. 3 Studio, Abbey Road, London APR 7029
No. 3 C# minor Op 39 - Rubinstein, (rec. 3/59), Philips Great Pianists, 456-955-2 (2CD)
No. 4 E Op 54 - Horowitz (rec. 9. 3. 36) No. 3 Studio, Abbey Road, London, Pearl GEMM CDS 9262

To anyone looking this Naxos gift horse in the mouth, there are two questions: (1) How does the Naxos transfer by the Ledins compare with the near-noiseless EMI Références recording (c/w the two Barbirolli-accompanied Concertos instead of the Scherzi) and (2) how does Rubinstein compare with his later own later recordings?

There's no denying the quieter EMI Références surfaces, perhaps taken from masters that Naxos's producers didn't have access to. To be fair, too, the EMI doesn't seem to skim off any ambient sound that might justify the 'Full English Breakfast' sizzle. But at this price, and with the more logically paired Scherzi, who's complaining? It's not obtrusive.

By August 1965 Rubinstein had naturally slowed down, yet in itself this isn't an indication of his quality. His singing tone is unimpaired. Some of his contemporaries give an indication of how his aristocratic playing defined the interpretation of these works for much of the century. His playing involved less wandering in rubato but was less incidentally magical than that of the older generation, of whom Hofmann was a cuspal representative. Hofmann took a far more modern and less capricious approach (relatively speaking) as did pianists younger than Rubinstein like Horowitz (for the Scherzo No. 4) and (for the Scherzo No 1) his classmate the marvellous, luckless Anatole Kitain (1903-1980) both of whom played with new agogic distortions. The magical Horszowski is faster at 91 in both Op 27 than Rubinstein was at 50! And for this reviewer, their speed reflects a kind of transcendent, euphoric music-making that might even reflect his belated fame, and appearance at the Aldeburgh Festival! (How much archival Horszowski exists is still unanswered, and only Pearl have bothered - with the Mozart Concertos.) The August 1965 Rubinstein is less heroically defiant than in October 1936, more melancholy in Op 27/1. The Op 27/2 is more serene though perhaps less ecstatic than Horszowski.

What does emerge is that Rubinstein's tempi reflect a sense of line and lack of the sudden reining-in that Hofmann or perhaps Friedman deploy. In Op 55/2 Friedman's overall tempo almost exactly matches Rubinstein's, as does the recording date (12/36): yet the latter seems more purposeful, addressing phrases more matter-of-factly yet with no loss of poetry. He sustains this with judicious use of diminuendo at the end of phrases. The Hofmann items (on various transfers, with the VAI/Marston complete series, or the selected Philips) seems far more improvisatory; in the Op 9/2, the Op 15/2, or the Op 48/1 where his far longer playing time (7.03) foreshadows that of the later Rubinstein. But Rubinstein refuses the reining-back on penultimate phrases that even Friedman, more modern than he's credited as being, indulges in. There's less revelling in a wandering tonal palate and - though it's hard to tell sometimes - less use of the pedal.

By 1965, there's a steadiness about the Op 48 that seems almost too sedate. And yet in the first Hofmann takes even longer in his Golden Jubilee concert of November, 1937. But nevertheless Rubinstein has gained a granitic inevitability, that must have seemed, with such elegance, poetry and fluidity, to make these loom like ivory towers for generations. Op 48/2 unfolds with a sure naturalness that makes one feel it can't live in any other climate until another giant makes it tremble differently. The 1936-37 recordings betray a pianist who's still anxious to re-establish his authority, and the Nocturnes own the urgency of re-discovery. In particular, I enjoy these earlier versions of Op 48.

The Scherzi are, on the face of it, pieces that allow less waywardness, and (paradoxically) more pulling about in their contrasts. They command tougher virtues: velocity and virtuosity. There are splinterings of wrong notes here in the unreconstructed 1932 Rubinstein, like occasional wrong animals flitting out of a conjurer's hat. They are exhilarating, eliciting great power and poetry, and still refuse to indulge rubato the way that Kitain does. In fact Kitain's nervous, Ondine-like pulling away from climaxes and sudden calms, strikes me as one of the most satisfying traversals of this piece ever committed to disc. Hofmann abandons some of his own famed elegance for an explosive and unrelenting cascade in No. 1. But Rubinstein is altogether as propulsive here, given to explosive left-hand detonations and a demonic appetite. Even so he can gradate this towards the more serene edges of the central section. In No. 4, where we recall that Scherzo is a joke, and here the least bitter of the four, Horowitz entertains in a joyous celebration of youthful power. It's perfectly legitimate to take a minute off Rubinstein's own timing, and is what this Scherzo is partly about, despite its quite late (1842) composition. This is a particularly valuable comparison since Rubinstein made it himself. He noted the accuracy as well as the pyrotechnics, and was sobered into three years of practise. But Rubinstein's own joyous fallibility is still a classic of the gramophone, the earliest set to be recorded in its entirety. His March 1959 recording of Scherzo No. 3 boasts beautiful, cascading glissandi, and in terms of inner speed and cohesion is as sprightly as ever; no slips. But the whole is conceived, inevitably perhaps, on a more sedate ground. It's truly satisfying, with great cumulative tensions resolved or ebbing, but this is a younger music.

Notes, presentation (with dates bracketed for each set of Nocturnes and the Scherzi) and layout are, as ever, excellent. Thus Naxos harry the eldest companies. Too niggardly to effect this themselves, the catalogues of EMI et al are being steadily, judiciously plundered. Only Dutton have taken up the challenge.

Simon Jenner

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