About this Recording
8.110661 - CHOPIN: Polonaises (Selection) (Rubinstein) (1934-1935)

Artur Rubinstein plays Chopin Polonaises


When Artur Rubinstein died in 1982 at the age of 95, a last great link to the golden age of pianism had finally been severed. 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. Although born in 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.


Artur Rubinstein was born in the provincial Polish City of L'odz in 1887, the seventh child of middle class Jewish parents. Like many of the great pianists, Rubinstein's natural musical gifts manifested themselves early. The boy had large, perfectly formed hands; an infallible memory and an accurate ear enabling him to recognise any note or chord played on the piano. Such precocity at first delighted, and then bewildered his family, who sought advice from the great violinist and colleague of Brahms, Joseph Joachim. Eighty years later, Rubinstein could still recall the meeting, which took place in Berlin in 1890. Back in L'odz the boy studied with a number of local teachers before travelling to Warsaw where he was placed with a Professor Rozyck. The relationship was hardly productive. According to Rubinstein, Rozyck slept through his lessons and he remembered his teacher without affection as a 'big, fat, old man, lazy and flabby'. In 1897 the family travelled to Berlin where Rubinstein again met Joachim who suggested the boy study with Heinrich Barth, a stern, distant man whose pupils included Ernest Schelling and later, Wilhelm Kempff. Barth was one of the finest teachers in Berlin, but Rubinstein grew to loathe his unbending Teutonic discipline. In truth, there was a clash of egos. The young Rubinstein needed musical sustenance and was unable or unwilling to submit to the dull, but necessary technical routine of scales and exercises. In spite of their differences, the boy progressed rapidly and in 1900 made his debut in the Great Hall of the Berlin Hochschule playing Mozart's A major Concerto under the watchful eye of Joachim.


Berlin at the beginning of the twentieth century was one of the great musical capitals of the world and Rubinstein absorbed the atmosphere like a sponge. The experience of hearing Busoni, Godowsky, d' Albert, Paderewski and Hofmann left a lasting impression, but in 1903 after six years with Barth, Rubinstein broke acrimoniously with his teacher and left for Poland. The failure to complete his formal education left Rubinstein with a deep sense of artistic insecurity that was only alleviated by years of applause and growing acclaim. From 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 an unqualified 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".


The years before the Great War were busy for the young pianist. He settled in Paris and developed important friendships with the artistic and musical elite, his charm and good looks ensuring that he became a favourite at aristocratic soirees. Although today remembered as an interpreter of Chopin and the great romantic composers, during these Parisian years Rubinstein became the darling of the avant garde. He championed and commissioned music by contemporary composers such as de Falla, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Szymanowski - works that would play little part in his active repertory after the 1940s. 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. The Spanish tour was his greatest triumph to date and he returned in 1916 for a handful of concerts and stayed to give 120. In subsequent years, he repeated this success in South America, but artistically, Rubinstein had become dissatisfied with his playing. He admitted that these early concerts were littered with wrong notes, but such trifles were of little importance to his Spanish and Latin American audiences. This uncritical acceptance undoubtedly bolstered his self-confidence, but in the long term made him lazy technically, fostering a cavalier attitude to the music that he played. The 1920s were highly successful for Rubinstein. He was described in the 1924 edition of Modern Music and Musicians as 'one of the most celebrated pianists of our time? and at about the same time began his long series of recordings, initially on piano roll, and subsequently for His Master's Voice/Victor on flat discs. These early recordings demonstrate a pianist of remarkable temperament and personality, but one with occasionally fallible fingers and questionable musical judgement. His 1928 disc of the Chopin Barcarolle was poorly reviewed by Gramophone who complained that "the pianist completely ruins the piece by a most unnecessary rubato". The criticism was not entirely unjustified.


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 to acquire the technical control and accuracy that he felt was lacking. 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 became one of the busiest musicians in the world, honoured by governments and lionised by an adoring public. He gave thousands of recitals and left a huge and representative legacy of recordings that continues to further his reputation and communicate his art to an ever-growing army of supporters.


Rubinstein's recordings of the Chopin Polonaises presented on this Naxos CD are the first and most spontaneous of his three studio versions. Recorded by HMV in 1935/6 on eight 12-inch double-sided 78 rpm discs, these glorious performances reveal Rubinstein in sovereign command of his technical and musical resources at the beginning of his artistic renaissance.


Jonathan Dobson


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