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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827): Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major, Op. 73 "Emperor"* [37’50]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897): Rhapsody in G minor, Op. 79 No. 2 [6’29"]; Intermezzo in B flat minor, Op. 117 No. 2 [4’31"]; Capriccio in B minor, Op. 76 No. 2 [3’33"]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828): Impromptu in G flat minor, D899, No 3 [5’27"]; Impromptu in A flat major, D899, No 4 [6’32"]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849): Nocturne in F sharp major, Op. 15 No. 2 [3’50"]; Étude in C sharp minor, Op. 10 No. 4 [2’01"]; Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53 [6’58"]
Artur Rubinstein (piano)
*Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy
Recorded in BBC Studios, Maida Vale, London, 29 November 1958 and *Royal Festival Hall, London, 14 June 1963 ADD


Beethoven was not a composer whose music was especially associated with Artur Rubinstein. Indeed, in his interesting liner note Jeremy Siepmann points out that the great Polish pianist only performed about six of the sonatas during his lengthy career. Rubinstein did record the concertos, setting down a complete set for RCA with Josef Krips in 1956. He also made earlier recordings of the Third concerto with Toscanini and of the Fourth with Beecham though I think it would be fair to say that none of these have been widely regarded as being among the finest examples of his recorded legacy.

In this performance of the "Emperor" he’s accompanied by Eugene Ormandy at the helm of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. It’s most unusual to find an example on disc of Ormandy working with an orchestra other than his Philadelphia Orchestra. Don’t expect too many revelations, however. Ormandy accompanies efficiently, although I felt that he could have persuaded the band to play more softly in certain passages. However, one cannot form a real judgment as to how he interacted with the Philharmonia on the evidence of this concerto performance. (Of what did the remainder of the programme consist, I wonder and might it be worth issuing separately by BBC Legends?)

Jeremy Siepmann’s notes point to the fullness of Rubinstein’s tone and that is certainly evident in this concerto performance although as recorded the piano sounds rather clangorous, especially in louder passages. Indeed in loud tutti passages the piano tends to dominate the sound picture.

The first movement is generally well played, though when the opening piano flourishes return (at 12’20") the soloist’s playing is somewhat splashy. The overall impression is of a rather forceful account of the movement by both pianist and orchestra. At the start of the second movement the strings are marked piano but what we actually hear is closer to mf. This failure by Ormandy to procure genuinely soft playing vitiates any sense of mystery. It presages what is, I think, a rather prosaic account of the movement. It must be said, however, that Rubinstein negotiates the magical transition to the finale very atmospherically. The finale itself is spirited and jovial.

At the end the audience response is most enthusiastic but I’m bound to say that the performance didn’t set my pulse racing. It sounds to me like an efficient traversal of the notes but little more than that. You will look in vain for the profundity that someone like Brendel, Richter, Schnabel or Solomon would bring to this epic work. In fairness, though, I don’t think that was ever Rubinstein’s intention. In the notes we can read a lengthy quotation from him in which he chides people who "prefer to see a man sitting over his Beethoven with a big frown….and like what the Germans like to call ‘deep’. I don’t believe in the ‘depth’ of music. It is usually linked, for me, with the word ‘boring’." I’m not entirely sure one should take all this at face value but I can’t say that Rubinstein’s view of "Emperor" is one that I’m likely to return to in a hurry.

However, the solo recital items are another matter entirely. Here the pianist is on much more congenial territory. The sound quality is less good than in the concerto (the recordings derive from BBC acetates) but the playing’s the thing.

His Brahms group is very good, crowned by a magnificent, compelling rendition of the G minor Rhapsody in which Rubinstein’s playing is by turns poetic and darkly glowing. The lovely touch that served him so well in Chopin is evident also in the two Schubert Impromptus. The one in G flat minor receives a limpid reading yet the performance has undoubted inner strength. Its companion is scarcely less successful or enjoyable.

Inevitably, perhaps, the recital ends with Chopin. The F sharp minor Nocturne is a thing of delicate beauty and Rubinstein treats us to a reading that is exquisitely poised. The music breathes in his hands, thanks in no small measure to his rubato, which he has down to a fine art. Siepmann refers to the A flat major Polonaise as the artist’s "signature tune". Here Rubinstein achieves the not inconsiderable feat of giving an heroic, storming performance, but one which is refined at the same time.

It’s this second half of the CD that shows clearly why Rubinstein was held in such high regard. These solo performances give us a glimpse of the "Rubinstein magic" that is missing from the concerto. I wish BBC Legends had given us a full CD of recital items for the concerto performance, frankly, is not in the same league. I can only surmise that a limited amount of recorded material was available. Admirers of Rubinstein will want all the contents of the disc and other listeners may well find more in the Beethoven than I did. To my mind, however, it’s in the Brahms, Schubert and Chopin items that we get a true taste of one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable pianists.

John Quinn

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