Concertos under Barenboim remain a valuable document of Arthur
Rubinstein's twilight years; he died in 1982, having been born
way back in 1887! These interpretations reveal playing of the
utmost maturity, clearly the fruit of a lifetime's study. Yet
in doing so they miss the spark of life that lies at the very
heart of Beethoven.
Barenboim of course
has himself long been associated with these works having been
the pianist himself – with Klemperer – early in his career.
He clearly knows the score inside out, for his accompaniments
are utterly sympathetic to the Rubinstein cause, and the LPO
play with great concentration and, indeed, affection. Of course
Rubinstein recorded cycles prior to this (1956, Symphony of
the Air/Krips and 1963-7, Boston Symphony/Leinsdorf).
The 'Emperor' is placed first, and all bodes well. The
orchestral E flat major is positively resplendent, and Rubinstein's
pedalling in his responding flourishes is marvellous. It is
not long before a contrast arises, however - the orchestra in
its long ritornello confident and outward-looking, Rubinstein
on re-entry much more ponderous. It just sounds like this is
an older person's interpretation ... contrast, perhaps, with
Claudio Arrau and Colin Davis, another 'older person's' interpretation
that is a thing of the highest wonder. Even the usually titanic
interchanges between piano and orchestra (around 12:00) have more than a whiff of the Gentleman's
Club (in the old sense) about them.
Contrast again in
the second movement, where Barenboim shapes his warm-sounding
forces very affectingly, as against Rubinstein's slight sense
of remove. Indeed, Barenboim prepares and paces the semitonal
slip to the transition to the finale (octave bassoons-horns)
perfectly. One is holding one's breath already before Rubinstein
plays the slowed-down finale theme. Rubinstein plays the preparation
well, but surely he is too soft-edged when the finale properly
begins. Rubinstein continues this trend, in fact, and is all
too prone to reflection at the slightest opportunity. Certainly
there is much to admire – pearly treble, and well-defined timpani
in the famous duet with piano towards the very end.
The Second Concerto raises even more questions. This
really is a young man's music, and right from the off the 'con
brio' part of the tempo indication is called into question.
One can admire the care that evidently went into the orchestra's
exposition - while simultaneously wondering why the violins
are so brightly recorded. Throughout one can marvel at Barenboim's
careful, loving and always-attentive accompaniments. It is clear
that both pianist and conductor are singing from the same hymn
sheet. To possess Rubinstein's finger-strength would surely
mean auctioning off part of most people's souls. And there is
no faulting either the interpretative rigour here – the conception
clearly covers the cadenza. Yet the cadenza is just where youthful
excess is needed – this is where one shows off, after all, yet
Rubinstein is slow, almost cumbersome. Here one admires the
counterpoint of the opening, indeed the intellectual rigour
of it all. A middle way, surely, is the answer.
Rubinstein is at his best in the rapt Adagio which, if
it is un poco mosso, is very 'poco' indeed. Try him at
around 3'45, where gorgeous right-hand projection and clarity
is coupled with all voices in superb balance; no surprise that
the LPO's woodwind is inspired to reply in kind. This is 9'28
of true chamber music, albeit on a large canvas.
The finale raises questions of pay-offs. The downside
is a slight sluggishness of tempo, the pay-off is that every
note is clear, accents have real point to them. Details have
more import, too, and as if to confirm this, Barenboim's hoiking-up
of the dynamic level of the string accompaniment at 2'24ff -
penny-plain on paper, a real support here - is a revelation.
Repeated chords one hardly notices usually here add extra energy
to the proceedings.
Interesting, then, if not mandatory.