Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 [40:29]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21 [30:06]
Artur Rubinstein (piano)
New Symphony Orchestra of London/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (Op. 11); Symphony of the Air/Alfred Wallenstein (Op. 21)
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, 8-9 June 1961 (Op. 11); Carnegie Hall, New York, 20 January 1958 (Op. 21)
Booklet notes in English
MINUET 428422

The recordings here duplicate those already available on the RCA Living Stereo Hybrid CD/SACD (review), and numerous other RCA/Sony Rubinstein reissues. That I will come back to, but first to the performances which, it could be said, are past the time for criticism. Given their vintage and standing in the Chopin firmament, the music market long ago assured them a permanent place, but that is not to suggest exclusivity. Indeed, of that era, I’d forever prefer Pollini’s youthful, propulsive account of the first concerto (review ~ review) and, despite its foibles, Arrau’s aristocratic second (review).

Comparison with Arrau is informative here on the grounds of rubato, where Rubinstein’s, characteristically, sounds natural and unforced, while Arrau’s has more of a personal flavour. Rubinstein was, by reputation, the great Chopin interpreter, so why, then, should he not automatically be preferred in both these works? Perhaps some clue is given by the nature of the concerto as a partnership between soloist and orchestra and, conceivably, an equal one. In Putting the Record Straight (Secker & Warburg, 1981), John Culshaw recounts his ‘shattering’ experience of working with Rubinstein to record a pair of Mozart concertos for RCA. Rubinstein’s insistence that he be heard above anything else caused this venture to be written off, Culshaw relating that RCA’s subsequent advice to him was that “they had had to put up with (Rubinstein’s) passion for fortissimo for some years and were prepared to accept it in a virtuoso concerto”, but not in Mozart.

You can certainly hear every note in these Rubinstein performances. You will also be aware of an almost celestial separation between soloist and orchestra. Musically it may gel, and history attests that it does, but sonically it may be kindest to again use John Culshaw’s words, paraphrasing Rubinstein’s, that this “was how his audience wanted to hear him”.

The original RCA recordings of these concertos are early stereo, and represent the trans-Atlantic differences in approach at the time. The 1958 New York take of the second concerto was recorded in RCA’s then proprietary left-centre-right configuration (to which the Living Stereo SACD provides access on its multi-channel layer). The centre channel was then mixed equally with the left and right channels to obtain normal stereo. For the 1961 first concerto sessions in London, RCA utilised Decca’s methods and resources, which was customary at the time, and a conventional two-channel master resulted. The legendary Kenneth Wilkinson was engineer for the latter, as also he was for the abovementioned Mozart sessions. Evidently taciturn by nature, one can only imagine what he thought of proceedings on both occasions, although John Culshaw notes an instance where one of the Rubinstein clan complained once too often of “not enough piano”, to which Wilkie inquired coldly: “Enough for what?”.

The current release on Minuet provides something of a mystery, as it appears superfluous to all the other ‘official’ RCA/Sony versions. The Living Stereo CD/SACD Hybrid I mentioned at the beginning may be out of print, but is still advertised for sale through various vendors, and that is the one to have. Otherwise, the two concertos are available on a single RCA/Sony budget CD (88691928082), and in sundry Rubinstein collections. As far as I can see, the Minuet CD offers no price advantage, and is short on information about the source and originality of the masters that were used. I certainly couldn’t detect any apparent differences or ‘improvements’ over the other versions. Balance issues aside, anyway, these recordings were never the best examples of what technically could be achieved at the time.

Needless to say, recordings from the Rubinstein A-list have a ready market, and this Minuet CD may well pay its way but, for all intents and purposes, it seems redundant.

Des Hutchinson

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