About this Recording
8.110656-57 - CHOPIN: Mazurkas (Rubinstein) (1938-1939)

Artur Rubinstein - Chopin Mazurkas


In the eighteen years since his death in Switzerland in 1982 aged 95, Artur Rubinstein's musical and personal reputation has been subjected to critical reappraisal Such posthumous re-evaluations are perhaps the inevitable result of almost universal popularity, but despite the attempts to demythologise him, Artur Rubinstein remains for many the greatest Chopin player of the last century. It was an accolade that Rubinstein prized, but in truth, the acclaim that he took for granted as an old man was hard-won and had taken a lifetime to achieve, When Rubinstein began programming Chopin in the early 1900's, contemporary critics considered his playing too dry, objective, literal, and lacking in poetry. The same criticisms were also levelled against Busoni, Hofmann, and later Rachmaninov. All belonged to a new generation of pianists who were making conscious efforts to divorce themselves from the performance tradition that had grown up in the years after Chopin's death Chopin himself had virtually abandoned his concert career in the 1830's owing to ever-increasing physical frailty, earning his living instead by teaching By the end of the 19" century, Chopin's pupils had perpetuated what Rubinstein was to describe as 'the wrong tradition' - characterised by excessive rubato, exaggeration and textual tampering. Any liberty was permissible - and even encouraged ?and many leading pianists of the day such as Paderewski and Pachmann confused licence with freedom.


Chopin's music formed part of Artur Rubinstein's cultural heritage, but although born in Lodz in 1887 and Polish by birth, Artur Rubinstein was by training a product of the great 19" century German school of piano playing After some rather unfortunate experiences with inadequate teachers in Poland, Rubinstein left for Berlin under the protection of the great violinist and colleague of Brahms - Joseph Joachim. Joachim was instrumental in Rubinstein's introduction to Heinrich Barth, one of the most important pedagogues in Berlin whose later pupils included Wilhelm Kempff. The teacher/pupil relationship could hardly be described as cordial. Barth attempted to lay down solid technical and intellectual principles for the young pianist, but Rubinstein rebelled against Barth's tough, Germanic discipline and was unwilling to submit to the boring but necessary technical work demanded. Despite their differences, the boy prospered and in 1899 began his professional career after a successful debut in the Great Hall of the Berlin Hochschule playing Mozart's A Major Concerto under the watchful eye of Joachim After six unhappy years with Barth, Rubinstein left Berlin in 1903 and returned to Poland. For then on, he was on his own. He gave a series of concerts in Paris in 1904 and travelled to America for the first time in 1906. It was not a great success. The audiences gave him a warm reception, but the critical response was far less ecstatic. Later Rubinstein would sum up the tour philosophically by explaining "I was not a prodigy any more, and I was not a mature artist. The critics were severe, much too severe. I thought I had lost America forever".


Rubinstein eventually settled in Paris before the First World War becoming the darling of the avant-garde championing music by de Falla, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Szymanowski - works that he virtually abandoned later. He appeared successfully in Berlin in 1910 and made his London debut at the Bechstein [now Wigmore] Hall in 1912. At the beginning of the War, Rubinstein was in London, but left for Paris to join the Polish Legion. He might have become one of the army cut down in the slaughter, but fortune intervened. The Legion had been disbanded and Rubinstein returned to London and secured a series of concerts in Spain. He returned there in 1916, playing over one hundred recitals and in subsequent years repeated the success in South America. He later admitted that these early concerts were littered with wrong notes, but to his Spanish and Latin American audiences, temperament matter more than technical accuracy.


By the 1920's, Artur Rubinstein was firmly established on the international concert circuit and was described in the 1924 edition of Modern Music and Musicians as 'one of the most celebrated pianists of our time? but as yet, he had made no gramophone recordings. The old acoustic process was notoriously bad at reproducing the full range of the modem piano, but with the advent of electrical recording in 1925, many of the top instrumentalists - including Rubinstein - began making discs for the major labels. Rubinstein's recordings made before 1935 demonstrate a pianist of remarkable temperament and personality, but one with occasionally fallible fingers and questionable musical judgement. His first recording was of Chopin's Barcarole. The Gramophone magazine reviewed the disc in 1928 and complained that "the pianist completely ruins the piece by a most unnecessary rubato". It remains one of the few negative criticisms of his fifty-year recording career.


For years Rubinstein had lived out of a suitcase, basing his playing on temperament and natural facility but in 1932 at the age of 45 he married and began to take stock of his artistic achievements. The technical accomplishments of other pianists such as the young Vladimir Horowitz were capturing the public imagination and leaving Rubinstein far behind "Was it to be said of me that I could have been a great pianist? Was this the kind of legacy to leave my wife and children?" He withdrew from the concert platform and began working ferociously on his technique and when Rubinstein re- emerged in 1935; he was - according to the American critic Harold Schonberg - 'the giant he could have been from the beginning'.  For the next four decades until his retirement in 1976, Rubinstein becoming one of the most respected musicians of the century honoured by governments and lionised by an adoring public. He gave thousands of recitals as both soloist and chamber musician and left a huge legacy of recordings that continues to communicate his art to an ever-growing army of supporters.


The Mazurkas

The Mazurkas of Chopin are amongst the composer's finest and most personal contributions to the piano literature. There are no less than fourteen published sets of Mazurkas that span and document Chopin's entire creative output The traditional Mazurka originated in the 16" century, but by the 18'", it had settled into the form that Chopin would have recognised Two or four parts of eight bars in three-four or three-eight time with a strong accent on the second beat of the bar. Chopin transformed what was a rather crude national dance into glittering tone poems that retain much of their Polish flavour, but with an added veneer of Parisian good taste and sophistication However, for Chopin they remained intense expressions of his Polish nationalism and Robert Schumann once went so far as to describe them as "guns buried in flowers".


Artur Rubinstein's pioneering recording of the Mazurkas was made in 1938/9 and although he subsequently re-recorded them twice more, his first version remains a unique and spontaneous testament to a great artist at the height of his career


Jonathan Dobson


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