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Harold Moores

Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-49)
Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23 (1835)
Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op. 38 (1839)
Ballade No. 3 in A flat major, Op. 47 (1841)
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 (1842)
Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20 (1831)
Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 31 (1837)
Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor, Op. 39 (1840)
Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Op. 54 (1842)
Artur Rubinstein (piano)
Rec. Manhattan Center, New York City, 25/26 March 1959 (Scherzos) and 28/29 April 1959 (Ballades)
BMG CLASSICS RCA RED SEAL SACD 82876 61396-2 [71'24"]


Reissues like this, I often think, promote much the same conflicting emotions as do those reunions with long-lost members of the family, or with one-time college friends of thirty-odd years ago. It’s wonderful to remake their acquaintance, but unsettling to be reminded of how much our outlook and expectations have changed, and how much experience has aged us! This CD is indeed good to hear. It serves to emphasise not only the uniqueness of Rubinstein’s artistry, but also the extraordinary achievements of his successors and advances in recording technique this last half-century.

For a generation at least, Rubinstein’s Chopin was regarded as the gold standard - the yardstick by which all other performers and performances were judged. His playing was often described as ‘magical’ - a bon mot which perfectly encapsulates the unique blend of romantic fervour, charm, spontaneity and dexterity which distinguish his music-making. He speaks with an unchallengeable authority which demands our respect and attention - as if a witness to a great historical event, or a grandfather recollecting his childhood!

Compared with more recent issues, these performances might be thought underplayed, even under-characterised. But of course understating - or, rather, avoiding overstatement - is a hallmark of maturity, of greatness and no bad thing in a ‘reference’ CD recording. You might think he makes light of key moments. The quadruple octaves and chromatic scales in the closing bars of the G minor Ballade, for example, where self-revealing pyrotechnics - the norm with younger players - are conspicuous by their absence! You might even think today’s players offer more mercurial clarity of fingerwork, or more unbridled virtuosity. The B minor Scherzo, with its relentlessly dashing semiquavers, for example, which - despite being 100% secure and accurate in Rubinstein’s hands - is no mere ‘showpiece’ or vehicle for technical display.

I confess that there are one or two occasions where Rubinstein delivers isolated notes within a melodic line with what seems to be an unintentional prominence. On first hearing this had me wondering whether he was planning to break up the phrase in some unexpected or individual way. But no, his touch is - dare I say it? - occasionally uneven. Even so, how lovely it is to hear such selfless playing! The singing lyricism of the F major Ballade’s opening page - with genuinely dotted rhythms - is simply delightful. His subtly inconspicuous rubato (totally free of excesses) is a pleasure to hear after the mannered distortions which so often disfigure latter-day readings.

No one approaches a disc such as this with the intention of fitting it into some kind of batting order among available recordings. But be aware that - as so often with core repertory such as this - there are very tempting alternatives. Indeed, there are several digital recordings which offer, as well as state-of-the-art sound, performances which are, in my estimation, so accomplished as to banish any meaningful criticism. Of these, Stephen Hough’s recent Hyperion disc (CDA67456) couples the Ballades and Scherzos, as here. Hough alternates Ballades and Scherzos, both in numerical sequence, whereas with RCA all four Ballades are placed before the group of Scherzos. Hough’s pianism is astonishing but it is his vehicle for projecting Chopin, not Hough. For a recording of the Ballades with alternative and less substantial couplings, I would suggest Perahia (Sony SK64399) and Zimerman (DG 4590532) as perhaps most deserving of consideration. Ax’s RCA Navigator disc of the Ballades - impressively masculine playing, and brightly recorded, but at a silly price! - seems no longer to be available. However you can still get his steely Scherzos on Sony SMK44544.

Rubinstein’s gold may not shine quite like it used to, but to have these two classic LPs on one CD, with sound quality nicely tidied-up, is a jewel nonetheless, and not to be missed!

Peter J Lawson

see also review by Colin Clarke

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