A well known anecdote has it that a visitor to New York, having
lost his way, approached Arthur Rubinstein in the street and asked
“Pardon me, sir, but how do I get to
Carnegie Hall?" - to which the maestro immediately replied
"Practice, practice, practice."
Well, I doubt that “practice, practice, practice”
was on the timetable much before this 1946 recording of Rachmaninoff’s
ubiquitous concerto because Rubinstein’s performance here is,
quite frankly, riddled with slapdash technique.
The root problem may well have been his condescending
attitude to Rachmaninoff as a composer. “I fall”, he once wrote,
“… under the charm of his compositions when I hear them but
return home with a slight distaste for their too brazenly expressed
But the fact that RCA producers allocated only
a brief, single session and a less than front rank conductor
to the project also suggests that, especially after the failure
to release a flawed Rubinstein/Stokowski recording made less
than 12 months before, they were keen to get the product out
quickly rather than especially carefully.
My own suspicion is that some bright spark at RCA
also simply hoped to cash in on the fact that, just the previous
year, Tin Pan Alley hacks Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman had achieved
a hit popular song for Frank Sinatra by setting particularly
banal words to the concerto’s big tune: “Full moon and empty arms / The
moon is there for us to share / But where are you?”.
Whatever the reason for Rubinstein’s remarkably careless approach,
it inevitably means that this performance cannot be regarded
as an authoritative account, either of the concerto itself or
of Rubinstein’s artistry. It is, in fact, far better listened
to as if it were a recording of how the pianist might have given
an exciting one-off live performance, warts and all. And, let
me concede at once, this is a very thrilling account
that, with fast tempos throughout, would have had a real audience,
no doubt mentally singing along to “Full moon and empty arms”,
jumping out of their seats with enthusiasm.
Listening to a CD at home and repeatedly, though, means that it is
hard to overlook moments – or, indeed, whole musical paragraphs
- where a greater degree of contrast, emotional reflection and
sheer sensibility would have been more appropriate. To take
just a single instance, the section from 6:49 in the finale
sounds, to my ears, quite grotesquely hurried: when compared
to the classic Rachmaninoff/Stokowski 1929 recording, it is
obvious how much extra magical atmosphere is added by the earlier
performers’ more carefully controlled dynamics and more reflective
tempos. Perhaps Rubinstein, as well as whipping up all that
excitement, was desperately trying to avoid anything that might
be construed as that dreaded “brazenly expressed sweetness”?
The soloist was again paired with a rather journeyman conductor,
this time Walter Susskind, when he recorded the op.43 Rhapsody
the following year, this time for EMI. The artistic result
was rather more satisfactory – indeed, Rubinstein’s restraint
in the famous Variation XVIII makes it arguably even more effective
than usual - but it is hard to see, from a purely musical point
of view, why anyone would choose this version over any other.
What was quite rightly picked up by reviewers at the time,
however, was the excellent quality of the recorded sound from
Abbey Road Studio no.1. One critic, quoted in Jonathan Summers’s
very useful notes, rated it as “[s]tunning! ... almost too vivid
… larger than life … I really had to go outside on the landing,
where I liked it still better” and then suggested that this
recording might even mark the point where “recorders are reaching
the limit of what one can stand in the ordinary small drawing-room”.
Apparently rather frightened by that, the records show that
EMI engineers made a note to “reduce level of dangerous passages”
before the discs were released!
Rubinstein only ever recorded one of Rachmaninoff’s solo piano pieces
– the C sharp minor Prelude – and the version we have here was
his second attempt. Again, it is a perfectly fine interpretation
but not one to pick off the shelves in preference to many others.
As an encore here, though. it does its job well.
though, that, taken together, the concerto and the Rhapsody
clock in at less than 52 minutes, ought we to have been expecting
something more substantial than just an encore at that point?
I know that this is a bargain price disc – but does a bargain
cease to be a real one if the product itself is, unlike that Sinatra
moon, not much more than half full?