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Not available in the USA

CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano concerto no.1 in E minor, op.11 (1830) [38:29]
Piano concerto no.2 in F minor, op.21 (1830) [28:29]
Arthur Rubinstein (piano)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Alfred Wallenstein (concerto no.1)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/William Steinberg (concerto no.2)
rec. Carnegie Hall, New York City, 25 March 1946 (concerto no.2); Republic Pictures Studios, Hollywood, 12 December 1953 (concerto no.1)
Experience Classicsonline

The main marketing angle of this new Naxos Historical issue is, according to its notes, that these recordings typify Arthur Rubinstein’s “middle period” Chopin.

Given that Rubinstein was performing as soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of just 13, it might seem more than a little unlikely that his “middle period” would include recordings made at the age of 59 and 66. But in fact the chronology of Rubinstein’s artistic development was significantly skewed both by his decision, at the age of 45, to embark on a major re-evaluation of his technique and repertoire - he himself termed it “the second beginning of my career” - and the fact that he was still working in the recording studio in his ninth decade. 

The Naxos synopsis, on the disc’s back cover, adopts a linear view of the way in which Rubinstein developed his approach to the Chopin concertos. Thus, the 1930s recordings with John Barbirolli are said to be generally characterised by “fire and youthful exuberance”; the final recordings in the stereo age supposedly exhibit “greater maturity and structural coherence”; and, so runs the argument, these “middle period” accounts from 1946 and 1953 successfully combine the best features of both. 

That is a somewhat sweeping generalisation and Rubinstein was no doubt all the more interesting – and a greater artist - because of the spontaneity and unpredictability that he was wont to demonstrate in live performance. And yet, on the basis of these recordings, it does seem to me that the Naxos analysis is generally correct. 

Just to take something as superficial – though relatively objective - as the timings of these concertos in various Rubinstein recordings over the years, a remarkably consistent pattern does emerge quite clearly.

Op.11 1937, London Symphony Orchestra/Barbirolli 1953, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Wallenstein 1961, New London Symphony Orchestra/Skrowaczewski
I. Allegro maestoso 15:34* 18:58 19:36
II. Romanze. Larghetto 9:26 9:47 10:42
III. Rondo. Vivace 8:11 9:44 10:01
* Comparison not possible as a truncated orchestral introduction was used

Op. 21 1931, London Symphony Orchestra/Barbirolli 1946, NBC Symphony Orchestra/Steinberg 1958, Symphony of the Air/Wallenstein
I. Maestoso 10:56 12:30 13:15
II. Larghetto 8:06 8:10 8:34
III. Allegro vivace 7:33 7:49 8:03

As can be seen, there is, in progressive recordings, a marked and measurable tendency to slow down and to demonstrate greater introspection and deliberation in each movement of both concertos. So, in that sense at least, these Naxos accounts are very much “in the middle”. 

But does that make them the best of the bunch? The answer will almost certainly be a matter of personal preference, but I think it is fair to say that there is a great deal to be said in their favour. 

An English reviewer of the 1946 performance of the F minor concerto, quoted in Jonathan Summers’s excellent booklet notes, wrote perceptively that “you might feel that there is an absence of quiet, delicate playing. [Rubinstein] … takes a dashing view of the concerto, of the first movement especially, and scarcely anywhere is there any pianissimo ravishment. But it is a valid view and this virile performance, with some wonderful playing, held my attention all through with delight.” Virility is indeed the key concept here, I think, and I personally found this account something of a breath of fresh air, banishing even the slightest hint of over-sentimentality and revealing the concerto in a fresh coat of paint. 

The performance of the E minor concerto is rather less novel in approach though it has one quirky moment where Rubinstein gives the very opening phrase of the first movement a curious rhythmic snap – which I don’t, pace Mr Summers, detect to “exactly the same” extent in the subsequent 1961 re-recording. Nevertheless, this is another very fine performance, superbly conceived and executed. Contemporary critics had a few negative things to say about Alfred Wallenstein’s direction of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but I actually found that to be one of the recording’s great strengths. The conductor fully matches Rubinstein in strength and vigour and, in Mark Obert-Thorn’s expert restoration, the orchestra comes out sounding very well indeed, even allowing for the date of the performance. Initial pressings must have been rather odd because one English reviewer swore that he detected a saxophone in the orchestral mix! 

When wanting to listen to a Rubinstein account of these concertos in the future, I imagine, then, that it will almost certainly be this one – rather than the over-impulsive 1930s accounts or the comparatively stately traversals of his final “grand old man” phase – that I will be taking from the shelves with the greatest sense of pleasurable anticipation.

Rob Maynard


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