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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, November 2008

Rubinstein’s 1946 Carnegie Hall recording of the C minor concerto is one of the fastest on record; I can’t say the fastest because I’m in no position to have heard them all. It’s certainly quicker than the composer’s own electric recording with Stokowski though roughly on a par with the 1924 late acoustic they made together. Even here however Rubinstein is quite a bit quicker in the finale. The effect is one of intense excitement and engagement, sprinkled with a number of the pianist’s own textual emendations, and given the notorious microphone placement on which he insisted the result is a blockbusting, visceral and very up-front traversal. Rubinstein refuses almost all offers to linger, preferring instead a valiant, almost defiant linearity that’s by no means finger perfect but adds a remarkable gloss to more indulgent performers. That said I don’t think anyone would call Moiseiwitsch sentimental in this regard and yet he in his recordings with Goehr and Cameron was altogether slower—three and a half minutes slower in total with Goehr in 1937 for example —and he didn’t sound sentimental either.

What does emerge strongly in this performance is Rubinstein’s approach to elements of Rachmaninoff’s  writing that others can elide, especially audible—given the nature of the recording—in the slow movement. I found his playing here at its best, though the recording sabotages string counter themes and wind lines rather ruinously; even the horns suffer badly. But the compensations are once again linear and decisive, qualities that reappear in the finale. Moiseiwitsch’s slightly earlier performance of this clocked in at 11:24—and he was no slouch; Rubinstein dispatches his finale in 9:58.

The Rhapsody is better balanced. He also had a better orchestra than the NBC in the form of the Philharmonia and a better accompanist than Golschmann in Walter Susskind. Still it’s again a vivaciously phrased and again very powerful, no prisoners type of performance. The pianist’s chording is dynamic and ringing, the horns sound resplendent. The winds etch their lines with powerful personality. For all the élan things don’t sound breathless as they could in the concerto. The tempo here is on a par with Moiseiwitsch’s. A 1950 C sharp minor Prelude makes a formidable, if perhaps inevitable ‘encore’—Rubinstein’s only commercial recording of a solo piece by the composer.

In conclusion there’s quite a bit under an hour of well annotated and expertly transferred Rubinstein-Rachmaninoff here. Powerful, graphically pictorial and directional; intensely dramatic, sometimes uncomfortably so.

Rob Maynard
MusicWeb International, August 2008

Whatever the reason for Rubinstein’s remarkably careless approach, it inevitably means that this performance cannot be regarded as an authoritative account, either of the concerto itself or of Rubinstein’s artistry. It is, in fact, far better listened to as if it were a recording of how the pianist might have given an exciting one-off live performance, warts and all. And, let me concede at once, this is a very thrilling account that, with fast tempos throughout, would have had a real audience, no doubt mentally singing along to “Full moon and empty arms” [Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman’s hit popular song for Frank Sinatra based on the concerto’s big tune], jumping out of their seats with enthusiasm. …The artistic result [for the op.43 Rhapsody]was rather more satisfactory – indeed, Rubinstein’s restraint in the famous Variation XVIII makes it arguably even more effective than usual - but it is hard to see, from a purely musical point of view, why anyone would choose this version over any other. 

What was quite rightly picked up by reviewers at the time, however, was the excellent quality of the recorded sound from Abbey Road Studio no.1. One critic, quoted in Jonathan Summers’s very useful notes, rated it as “[s]tunning! ... almost too vivid … larger than life … I really had to go outside on the landing, where I liked it still better” and then suggested that this recording might even mark the point where “recorders are reaching the limit of what one can stand in the ordinary small drawing-room”. Apparently rather frightened by that, the records show that EMI engineers made a note to “reduce level of dangerous passages” before the discs were released!

Rubinstein only ever recorded one of Rachmaninoff’s solo piano pieces—the C sharp minor Prelude—and the version we have here was his second attempt. Again, it is a perfectly fine interpretation but not one to pick off the shelves in preference to many others. As an encore here, though. it does its job well.

Given, though, that, taken together, the concerto and the Rhapsody clock in at less than 52 minutes, ought we to have been expecting something more substantial than just an encore at that point? I know that this is a bargain price disc—but does a bargain cease to be a real one if the product itself is, unlike that Sinatra moon, not much more than half full?

Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, June 2008

Though many collectors already own the RCA Rubinstein Edition, they may gravitate to these restored-sound inscriptions made possible through Mark Obert-Thorn and the Naxos label. Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982) played relatively little Rachmaninov, considering the vast scope of his repertory, but he did inscribe the C Minor Concerto four times, and this, from 27 May 1946 at Carnegie Hall, features some fast tempos and luxuriant tone. Working with the amiable Vladimir Golschmann (1893-1972), Rubinstein finds a conductor who accommodates the several deviations from the composer’s text, especially as the left-hand part of the last movement often eludes Rubinstein’s technique. In the 1950s, Rubinstein encountered similar problems in recording Rachmaninov with Fritz Reiner, and more than one Chicago Symphony musician made invidious comparisons to their work with Kapell, with whom music had proceeded more smoothly. Still, the 1946 performance exudes some fierce moments of excitement, and Rubinstein knows how to graduate a climax for maximum effect.

The Rhapsody recording dates from 16-17 September 1947 for HMV on Abbey Road, evincing a high level of sound from the keyboard, upon which Rubinstein insisted. Rubinstein takes the three major sections of the Rhapsody rather programmatically, as a developing love-scene of the great violinist, who celebrates his dazzling technique, his amatory potential, and his contest with the forces of death. Despite the several takes required to complete the project, the performance proceeds seamlessly with its edits, the elan, speed, and excitement of the realization primary. The justly famous 18th Variation becomes a paean to both Rubinstein and the composer’s ability to find dazzling melody in an inversion of the A Minor Caprice. The equally ubiquitous Prelude in C-sharp Minor, the one solo piece by the composer Rubinstein recorded (twice, once in 1936 and this from 11 December 1950) is enjoys a taut, fast-paced lyricism, what Rubinstein once characterized as “brazen sweetness.”

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2008

Looking back at Arthur Rubsintein’s discography, it is strange to find so few recordings of music by Rachmaninov, though he placed on disc four versions of the Second Piano Concerto. This one was made in 1946 partnered by the NBC Symphony with Vladimir Golshmann. Polish by birth in 1887, Rubinstein lived the life of a touring virtuoso, moving around the world in a diary packed with future engagements. He was to study in Berlin, the violinist and conductor, Joseph Joachim, nurturing the prodigious talent, his major concert debut coming at the age of 16 in 1903. With a massive career already established, he enjoyed a rather colourful life as a socialite in his 30’s and 40’s, his performances tending to be more flamboyant than in later life. It proved to be a long career that lasted well into his eighties, his appearances in the States and the UK being particularly well received. He was highly regarded for his unfailingly accurate technique, this concerto performance a fine example of that precision. Tempos for the outer movements are quick but remarkably free of those mannerisms that were common at the time. The following year, 1947, going to London for concerts, he recorded the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini at the Abbey Road Studio, the recently formed Philharmonia being conducted by Walter Susskind. At the time the sound quality was hailed as remarkable, and even today it is still pretty impressive. I must tread cautiously as this is often regarded as one of the work’s finest recorded performances. I find it rather cold, his formidable technique placed before the music. Yet when you hear those quick variations played with such an exhilarating brio - the nineteenth sparkles like cut diamonds - you can see why critics at the time were so bowled over. The accompaniment is equally good, and though Rubinstein always demanded the piano should dominate, there is still much orchestral detail to savour. As an ‘encore’ we have an unfussy account of Rachmaninov’s famous C sharp minor Prelude recorded in Hollywood in 1950.

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