About this Recording
8.111346 - CHOPIN, F.: Polonaises (Rubinstein) (1950-1951)

Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849)


Born in 1887, in the Polish city of Łódê, Arthur Rubinstein was the youngest of seven children, the sixth being born eight years before him. When he was four, Joseph Joachim tested the boy’s musical talent at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. Rubinstein was not exploited as a child prodigy and returned to Berlin at the age of ten where Joachim supervised his musical training, and Heinrich Barth taught him the piano. At twelve Rubinstein made his début in Berlin playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488, with Joachim conducting. The summer of 1903 was spent with Paderewski at his home in Morges and upon his return to Berlin, Rubinstein decided to finish his studies with Barth and go to Paris where he made his début in 1904. Two years later he made his début in New York and during the next ten years lived the life of a touring artist performing in Europe and South America and collaborating with Pablo Casals, Jacques Thibaud and Eugène Ysaÿe.

After the First World War Rubinstein lived life to the full as performer and socialite, and continued a successful career well into his eighties. In the mid-1950s he played seventeen works for piano and orchestra in five concerts, and in 1961, already in his mid-seventies, played ten recitals at Carnegie Hall. He gave his final recital in London’s Wigmore Hall in June 1976 at the age of 87. He lived on with failing eyesight until the age of 95, completing two volumes of entertaining autobiography entitled My Young Years (1973) and My Many Years (1980). He died in 1982 in Geneva.

Rubinstein recorded the seven Polonaises of Chopin three times; first in England for HMV during 1934 and 1935 on 78rpm discs, then for RCA in the early 1950s and finally in the LP stereo era, again for RCA, in 1964. The recordings heard here, from the middle period of Rubinstein’s recording career, were made right at the end of the 78rpm disc era when RCA had begun to record onto tape. Like their sister company HMV in England, however, RCA were still issuing recordings on 78rpm discs and so recorded the music in segments that were the length of 78rpm sides. When the LP took over in the early 1950s these segments could be joined together for a seamless performance. By the late 1950s the widespread use of frequent tape editing led to recordings often sounding stilted as is the case with some of Rubinstein’s later studio work.

During the Second World War Rubinstein lived in Hollywood, his popularity with the public demanding appearances on radio and in films, in one of which he appeared with the conductor Eugene Ormandy. He also provided the soundtrack for a biopic about the Schumanns under the title Song of Love, where Katherine Hepburn played Clara Schumann. Rubinstein also continued his exclusive association with RCA Victor records and at the end of September 1950 he spent a day and a half at RCA’s studios in Hollywood to begin recording the seven Polonaises of Chopin completing all but Op. 44 and the Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61. Rubinstein returned to the studio during December for four more half-days of recording. On the first two he recorded encore pieces by Rachmaninov, Debussy, Liszt, Chopin, Mendelssohn and Schubert, while on the third day he recorded the Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61, in three 78rpm side-length sections. On the last afternoon he set down just the Andante Spianato but not the accompanying Grande Polonaise.

It was not until five months later that Rubinstein continued with the Polonaise project. On the afternoon of 21 May 1951 he again recorded the Polonaise in C sharp minor, Op. 26, as he must have been dissatisfied with the recording of it he had made in September the previous year. That day was quite busy for RCA piano recordings: in their New York Studio 2 they were recording the piano duo Arthur Whittlemore and Jack Lowe playing arrangements of Kreisler compositions for two pianos and at the Town Hall in New York were recording the sublime performance of Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B minor, Op. 58, by William Kapell. Rubinstein recorded the Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op. 44, two days later and two days after that he set down the Grande Polonaise, Op. 22, thereby completing the project.

These are fine performances and Rubinstein certainly is one of only a handful of pianists who can imbue these Polish works with such rhythm, nobility and vigour. His tonal subtlety in the quieter sections of Op. 26, No. 1 and Op. 40, No. 2 are also notable and with many sections repeated it is good to detect subtle changes. Sometimes a lack of pathos or struggle may be felt, but the performances do not become superficial.

In the United States the first six Polonaises were issued on a twelve inch LP, the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise with the Polonaise-Fantaisie being issued on a ten inch LP. Columbia had introduced the LP in 1948 and RCA were trying to combat this with their idea of issuing recordings as box sets of 45rpm discs, which was not successful. Whereas one could buy the six Polonaises on a single LP, having them on five seven-inch discs was too similar to the old albums of 78rpm discs. Contemporary reviews were very brief—‘These impressive pieces are played with authority and a fine sense of their inner meaning by Rubinstein and have been faithfully reproduced by RCA Victor’ wrote The New Records in May 1952 and although the American Record Guide found that ‘Victor has given Mr Rubinstein the best and tonally most consistent reproduction on LP that he has had to date,’ the recorded sound from the May 1951 sessions is rather dry and close. However, these are enjoyable performances and as a complete set of the Polonaises still stands as one of the best. As the American Record Guide stated, ‘Some of the pianist’s performances are lacking a bit of his former rhythmic subtlety, but few artists of today are more proficient and temperamentally suited to this music than he.’

© 2009 Jonathan Summers

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