I admit it's taken me till now to read Arthur Rubinstein's two volumes of autobiography: My Young Years (1973) and My Many Years (1980). But I often think the passage of time gives us a better indication of the value of a piece of writing. (A slight caveat needs to entered about that word "writing" in the case of My Many Years, by which time the author had lost his sight. So the book was all dictated. Nevertheless, I have written, "Rubinstein writes," which seems to me a defensible liberty.)
I'm still only halfway through My Many Years (both of these are big books), but I've been sitting for a while on a passage from it so interesting that it cries out for sharing. We'll get to the full quote in a moment, but I've put the gist at the top, and I thought we would start with two pieces that could hardly be more different but that could both be counted on win audiences pretty much anywhere in the world over to his playing.
It should be noted that Rubinstein evolved enormously as a pianist, with a lot of the change which occurred at a surprisingly advanced age quite deliberate on his part, to fix what he had come to regard as a too easy approach to his playing, which relied on his natural musical instincts at the expense of close contact with the musical texts. We're going to hear performances "early" and late, though we need to be careful with that word "early"; his earliest recordings were made when he was in his early 40s.
DE FALLA: El Amor brujo: "Ritual Fire Dance" (arr. Rubinstein)
From the autobiographies we learn how much Rubinstein loved Spain and how much Spanish audiences, from the start, responded to his playing. With the composer's enthusiastic approval he made his own arrangement of the orchestral "Ritual Fire Dance" from Manuel de Falla's El Amor brujo. His Spanish audiences loved it, but so did audiences everywhere.
Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BMG, recorded in Hollywood, May 18, 1947
Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BMG, recorded in New York City, Mar. 23, 1961
CHOPIN: Barcarolle in F-sharp, Op. 60
Considering how revered Rubinstein eventually became as a Chopin player, it's interesting how long it took audiences to accept his way of playing Chopin. There were pieces he could always count on, though. We have the flashiest one, the A-flat major Polonaise, coming up. Apparently, though, his way with the Barcarolle rarely failed to melt audiences' hearts.
Arthur Rubinstein, piano. EMI, recorded in London, Apr. 18, 1928
Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BMG, recorded in New York City, Nov. 26-28, 1962
NOW LET'S HAVE THE COMPLETE QUOTE
Rubinstein writes in praise of the emphasis placed by the Paris Conservatory on sight reading -- meaning just what it sounds like: reading music for the first time at sight. He notes that the annual public examinations at the Conservatoire ("judged by well-known performers of every instrument") have as an important feature "sight reading from manuscripts of specially composed pieces" (obviously to make sure there's no chance that any of the students might have seen any of the examination pieces before).
In my opinion this reading at sight is of paramount importance for music students. It whets the appetite for reading all the music available, develops a better discernment in their own tastes, and enables them to make a judicious choice of the pieces which "talk" to them, which reveal to them their most intimate secrets. Many pianists perform at their concerts music which they do not understand or particularly like, only because these pieces are much in demand and recommended to them by their managers. I know of great conservatories where the gifted pupils are induced to start races with difficult pieces to see who can play them faster.
My long experience taught me that your only way to success, young pianists, is to pour out your own deep emotion into the music you really love and understand. When that happens an antenna reaches the public and makes them share your emotion even if they have never heard the piece or have a dislike for it. Music is a sacred art. Those who are born with the talent for it ought to feel that they are humble servants of the great immortal creators of music and be proud to be the chosen ones to transmit their heavenly gifts to humanity. Those who take these immortal works for vehicles for the promotion of their commercial success are traitors to their sacred art.
MORE SUREFIRE CROWD PLEASERS
CHOPIN: Polonaise No. 6 in A-flat, Op. 53 (Heroic)
Arthur Rubinstein, piano. EMI, recorded in London, Feb. 2, 1935
Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BMG, recorded in Rome, March 1964
LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-sharp minor
Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BMG, recorded in Hollywood, Oct.-Nov. 1953
Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BGM, recorded in New York City, June 17, 1941
Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BGM, recorded live at Carnegie Hall, Dec. 10, 1961
MUSIC OF HIS TIME
Rubinstein seems to have known all the composers of the 20th century, and been bosom buddies with many of them, playing their music -- including music written for him -- whenever he felt able to.
DEBUSSY: Preludes, Book II: No. 8, "Ondine"
One composer he didn't get a chance to know was Claude Debussy, but since Paris was for a long time Rubinstein's home base, French music naturally figured prominently in his musical consciousness, naturally including Debussy. At a concert of Rubinstein's in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, in which he played the Debussy prelude "Ondine," it turned out that the pianist Jacques Février escorted Debussy's widow. He reported to the pianist that Madame Debussy had said, "He plays 'Ondine' better than anyone." Rubinstein writes, "This little phrase rang in my ears so encouragingly that, for the rest of my career, whenever I played Debussy I included this beautiful prelude."
Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BMG, recorded live at Carnegie Hall, Nov. 3, 1961
VILLA-LOBOS: Prole do bebé (Baby's Family), Book I
Rubinstein developed close relationships with a lot of composers. A difficult case was the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, whose music was stoutly resisted by his countrymen, including when Rubinstein programmed it. The music was actually better received abroad. "O Polichinelo" was a favorite Rubinstein encore piece; here he plays six of the eight pieces of Book I, slightly reordered to his own satisfaction.
v. A pobresinha
vi. O Polichinelo
Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BMG, recorded live at Carnegie Hall, Oct. 30, 1961
TWO SPECIAL FRIENDS FROM HOME
At the moment I'm in about 1932 in My Many Years, which means I'm getting close to what have to have been two of the more wrenching moments in Rubinstein's life, the deaths of two cherished Polish friends, the violinist Paul Kochanski (1887-1934) and the composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937).
BRAHMS: Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108:
i. Allegro amabile
Kochanski and Rubinstein played together whenever they could, and some of Rubinstein's happiest musical experiences were public performances of violin-and-piano sonatas with Kochanski -- in Europe and North and South America. I thought we'd hear the first movement of the last and greatest of the Brahms sonatas, first with Kochanski and then from Rubinstein's later recording of all three sonatas with the great violinist Henryk Szeryng (with whom Rubinstein, along with cellist Pierre Fournier, also recorded the three piano trios of Brahms, the two of Schubert, and one of the Schumanns).
Paul Kochanski, violin; Arthur Rubinstein, piano. EMI, recorded in London, June 15, 1932
Henryk Szeryng, violin; Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BMG, recorded in New York City, Dec. 30, 1960, and Jan. 1, 1961
SZYMANOWSKI: Mazurkas, Op. 50
Rubinstein had a lot of enthusiasm for his friend Szymanowski's music, but there wasn't that much of it for piano. What there was didn't figure hugely in his repertory, but he did attempt to make it heard.
i. Sostenuto: Molto rubato
ii. Allegramente: Poco vivace
vi. Vivace (Junacko)
Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA-BMG, recorded live at Carnegie Hall, Nov. 1, 1961
BRAHMS WAS A HARD SELL
From his early years of study in Berlin Rubinstein developed a lifelong passion for Brahms. From our vantage point it's hard to believe, but in the decades when he was establishing his international career, outside the German-speaking countries Brahms's solo-piano music was a hard sell. Audiences in many places where he played just didn't want to hear it.
We've already heard the violin-sonata movement above. Now we're going to hear the opening movement from one of his first recordings, of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, the B-flat major. For a long time when he was invited to play with orchestra, the concertos he proposed were the Beethoven Fourth (which he had fallen in love with when he first heard it as a student in Berlin, played by Eugen d'Albert) and the Brahms Second. So he was quite excited when, after finally making his first records for EMI in London (before the advent of electrical recording, he thought acoustical recordings of the piano sounded like a banjo), EMI's Fred Gaisberg asked him to record the Brahms B-flat major Concerto.
He wasn't so happy with the results.
Fred Gaisberg called me up. "Are you willing to make a record of the B-flat major Concerto of Brahms? A good orchestra and the conductor Albert Coates are available on [such and such a date]." I was not only willing, I was thrilled by the idea. The date was just a few days before my departure for South America.We're going to hear the first movement from that "wretched disc," and then the same movement from Rubinstein's next recording of the concerto. (There would be two more, in stereo, conducted by Josef Krips and Eugene Ormandy.)
The morning after my arrival in London, Gaisberg took me to the hall where the recording would take place. It was an ugly, completely empty large room where once some popular balls were held. "I have a fine Bechstein for you." This did not sound reassuring, as lately I had had difficulties finding really good instruments. It was also impossible to see Mr. Coates before the recording, as I had hoped. We were given only two days for the longest of all concertos with its four movements, and the result was completely unsatisfactory. Everything seemed to be against us. The piano had a good sound but it was slightly out of tune and the tuner was not able to fix it. Mr. Coates conducted at the opposite end of the room, far away from me, so of course I had as neighbors the percussion and brass instruments at the back of the orchestra. In these circumstances there was no way of establishing a close contact between conductor and soloist, and neither of us liked any of the sequences we played. I considered the two days of hard work a useless effort and begged Gaisberg to destroy the takes. If I remember well, I said to him, "Our contract contains a clause where I have the right not to allow a record I do not find acceptable to be issued." Gaisberg promised. I departed for South America very disappointed. . . .
[Rubinstein returns from his least happy South American tour, which "left nothing but unpleasant memories in me," only to learn that his dear friend Karol Szymanowski's health is significantly worse than he knew. What's more --]
Fred Gaisberg had betrayed me; my record of the Brahms concerto was on sale. In my anger I was ready to break off our contrct. "You have no reason whatever to get so angry. Musicians like it and the sales are promising," said he, adding that Albert Coates had nothing against the issue of this wretched disc. Henceforth I promised to be more careful.
BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 83:
i. Allegro non troppo
Arthur Rubinstein, piano; London Symphony Orchestra, Albert Coates, cond. EMI, recorded Oct. 22-23, 1929
Arthur Rubinstein, piano; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded Aug. 11, 1952