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Artur Rubinstein (piano)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor Op.15 (1854-58) [46:59] ¹
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No.23 in A major K488 (1786) [26:56] ²
Artur Rubinstein (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis ¹
English Chamber Orchestra/Colin Davis ²
rec. Royal Festival Hall, 4 December 1968 (Brahms); Guildhall, City of London (Mozart) 13 July 1962
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4187-2 [76:40]


Rubinstein was known to have admired Brahms to such an extent that he was second only in his musical affections to Mozart. He had both the D minor and Mozart’s K488 in his repertoire from a very early age – around the turn of the twentieth century in fact – and they were constant companions in his concerto repertoire. So it’s wise of BBC Legends to have conjoined them in this way, celebrating performances given with Colin Davis in the 1960s.

His Brahms D minor is best enshrined in the commercial recording with Reiner on RCA Red Seal, reissued in 2005 on SACD (see review). The studio imbalance favoured the soloist to a degree unconscionable in this day and age but these were the days of Titans, the days when you’d go to a concert to see a performer as much as to hear a work. Decca Eloquence released Rubinstein’s late meeting in Israel with Zubin Mehta (see review) - but Rubinstein was eighty-nine, the recording was once more heroically unbalanced and a lot of the solo playing was, understandably, scrappy. 

With Davis’s BBC Orchestra in 1968 we have a performance of great charisma and power; less tactile and driving than Reiner, less lingering and digitally flawed than Mehta. But whilst temporally it’s nearer to the 1976 Israel recording than the 1954 Chicago, in terms of command and surety there is no sense of equidistance. This is still very much the Rubinstein of old, and not yet the more fallible artist. Certainly there are dropped notes, predominately early on but he soon assumes a degree of lyric power that is deeply impressive. So too is Colin Davis, espousing Brahms in a way that one would not necessarily expect from him now. He also gives his younger compatriot Simon Rattle something of a lesson in tempo modification and natural sounding dynamic gradients – Rattle’s recording of the D minor recently with Krystian Zimerman was not an overly edifying event (see review).

It’s true that the slow movement is a “late” Rubinstein tempo – it’s essentially the same as in the Mehta recording - but it has greater passion and fire and a greater sense too of romantic embrace. Davis’s tempo elasticity matches Rubinstein’s blow for blow here and in the finale, a bumpy moment or two apart, the sense of live music-making caught joyfully on the wing is palpable.

This applies just as much to the Mozart, a favourite of Rubinstein’s from amongst the select repertoire of the composer’s works – six concertos and one sonata. Four years earlier he’d recorded a commercial performance of K488 with Wallenstein and the RCA Victor Orchestra. Timings are almost identical and the direction of the music making similarly synchronous, albeit the ECO do play with a greater sense of intimacy. Their winds are a real delight and the freedom and flexibility of phrasing is a real pleasure. Rubinstein’s delicacy and intimacy are matched by simplicity of phrasing and a true naturalness of expression. The slow movement is radiantly beautiful, the soloist proving the most eloquent winged messenger imaginable.

Some of the BBC Legend issues have contained the occasional dud yoked to an undeniably elevated performance. No such concern bedevils this release. Both are singularly impressive examples of Rubinstein’s art.

Jonathan Woolf 


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