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Artur Rubinstein - Piano Concertos and solo pieces

Beethoven No. 4 & Saint-Saëns No. 2

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Antal Dorati (1967)
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Rudolf Schwarz (1957)
Villa-Lobos: A Prole do Bebê - Suite No. 1 (1958)
Chopin: Étude in E minor, Op. 25 No. 5 (1958)
& Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 31 (1968)

BBC Legends - BBCL42162

Does any other artist so deserve to be categorised as a legend? On the cover he is shown informally dressed, smiling whilst playing. Having attended as many of his London appearances as possible in his latter decades, it is good to have this coupling to refresh happy memories of the zest which he shared with audiences, making each of those concerts a treasurable experience.

The BBC recordings and transfers are fine, as are the particularly perspicacious new notes by Jeremy Siepmann, who quotes P.Lalo (not the composer) on Rubinstein's "prodigious level of culture" (at 17 !) and how technical problems by then already "take care of themselves". Rubinstein's own view of the Saint-Saens is contrasted with Brendel's "you cannot play a piece better than it is"... Whatever, it was that "first rate war-horse" (AR) which delighted me most in this splendid CD of Rubinstein live, accompanied sympathetically by the maybe under-rated BBC chief conductor of the time, Rudolf Schwartz.

At this point I defer to a piano reviewer to assess these particular live performances.


There is plenty on this disc to give evidence of Rubinstein’s greatness, but few would choose it as their only recording of the artist, or even as an exemplary one. Rubinstein plays with his characteristic lyricism; the central sections of the Chopin pieces glisten like pearls, and the concertos are full of his fabled beauty of tone. The Villa-Lobos pieces sparkle and tinkle by turns; like so many of the composer’s miniatures, ideal encore pieces.

At the same time, there is an intermittent quality about the playing. The Chopin stops and starts, as if Rubinstein launches himself with a burst of energy and then stops to catch his breath; both the Chopin Scherzo and the finale of the Saint-Saens are messy. We know that Rubinstein often preferred musically better studio takes with wrong notes to technically correct ones with less feeling -not really a choice available today. Nor is the Beethoven, though it is spacious and distinguished, ultimately memorable.

This is by no means Rubinstein’s finest recorded Beethoven 4, in fact, I agree with the general consensus that of his six, one should pick the 1947 version with the RPO and Beecham, which has the greatest energy. In fact, the timings of the six versions (not counting the cadenzas) lengthen consistently over the years.

Dorati and the LSO, with their typically straightforward approach, are ideal foils in the Beethoven, moving the music on as a counterweight to Rubinstein’s lyrical outpourings.

The Beethoven dates from 1967, but the recording has an unfortunately congested sound and in many ways the Saint-Saens, from ten years earlier (and also the Festival Hall) is superior.

The Saint-Saens was a staple of Rubinstein’s repertoire all his life; but like the Beethoven, this performance is not the most energetic, varied or dynamic.

The Chopin Etude is the only one Rubinstein regularly recorded. Several times, he is quoted at length saying how much in awe, indeed fear, he was of the Etudes, musically as well as technically. Even as late as 1973 he was hoping that one day he would record them. With the Scherzo, we see the tendency that later Rubinstein was more interested in structure, and less in improvisation, and in some ways his recordings from the thirties are more intresting. But again, on the evidence of this disc, one would not understand why he is indeed such a legend.

There is one bizarrely comic moment. Someone starts applauding halfway through the first section of the Chopin Scherzo and is audibly shushed by the people around him.

Recommended to Rubinstein-ologists only.

Ying Chang

Rubinstein Piano