About this Recording
8.110659-60 - CHOPIN: Nocturnes and Scherzi (Rubinstein) (1936-1937)

Great Pianists: Artur Rubinstein

Chopin: Nocturnes and Scherzi


When Artur Rubinstein died in 1982 at the age of 95, his passing severed the link to the golden age of nineteenth century pianism. In a career that lasted three quarters of a century, Rubinstein transcended the changing fashions and philosophy of performance practice without losing artistic relevance or compromising his basic musical personality. Despite being a child of the 1880s, Rubinstein's playing owed little to the 'romantic' tradition that surrounded him. His was an eclectic approach. As a musician he rejected the excesses of his older colleagues, but retained their emotional warmth and combined it with modern concepts of textual fidelity and objectivity. These qualities help explain Rubinstein's reputation as a supreme exponent of Chopin and why his recorded performances continue to hold their place in the catalogue.


Chopin's music formed part of Artur Rubinstein's cultural heritage, but although born in Lodz in 1887 and Polish by birth, he was by training a product of the great nineteenth 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 was difficult. 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. 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 played little part in his later career 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 he 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 mattered more than technical accuracy.


By the 1920s, Artur Rubinstein had firmly established his reputation on the international concert circuit, but was still not represented in the catalogues of the gramophone companies. The old acoustic process was notoriously bad at reproducing the full range of the modern 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. 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, relying 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 he 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, 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 Nocturnes

The Nocturne, although indelibly linked with Chopin, was actually the invention of the Irish Pianist/composer John Field (1782 -1837). Field used graceful, often highly decorated melodies and set them against undulating bass lines, very much in the style of the Italian operatic arias of the period Chopin's Nocturne in E flat Op.9, No.2 is the closest to the Field model and is one of the few occasions when Chopin might have unconsciously plagiarised his older colleague. The melody is very similar to Field's Nocturnes in B flat and F major. On the one documented occasion that the two composers met, Field jealously dismissed his younger rival as a 'sickroom talent', but there can be no doubt that Chopin transformed the genre from simple, elegant salon pieces into glittering and sophisticated tone poems. The title 'nocturne' implies 'night piece', but for Chopin, they were an expression of innermost contemplation; the world viewed in half- light as it were. Of the twenty Nocturnes written by Chopin, eighteen were published in his lifetime and they remain among the most popular of his compositions.


The Scherzos

Scherzo, literally translated from the Italian, means 'joke', but the listener will search in vain for much that is humorous or light-hearted in these four essentially dramatic works. The scherzo, derived from the minuet and trio of the early classical period, represented for Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn, and Chopin, a succession of contrasting musical ideas. For Chopin, this translated into a new form of composition, the drama and tension often in a minor key, relieved by a melodious second theme in the major. The only exception being the fourth Scherzo in E, Op.54, whose opening does suggest a less sombre and more playful mood. Written between 1831 and 1842 the Scherzos are among Chopin's most enduring works and although not directly influenced by fervent nationalism, the B major second subject of the Scherzo, Op.20 is based on a Polish Christmas carol 'Lulajze Jezuniu' fondly remembered from Chopin's youth.


Artur Rubinstein's 1932 version of the Scherzos was the first, and, for many years, the only recording of the four completed by a single pianist. As with the Nocturnes, Rubinstein subsequently re-recorded them twice more for RCA Victor.


Jonathan Dobson


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