RUBINSTEIN CENTENNIAL: A PERSONALTRIBUTE
Artur Rubinstein died in 1982, just five years shy of seeing his own centennial observed--no, celebrated , for the great pianist was the least solemn, the least off-putting of people, a beloved artist, not merely a respected one. He had the touch, not only at the keyboard, but with humanity.
Part of Rubinstein’s enormous appeal lay in the fact of his seeming accessibility as a man, and proven accessibility as an artist: not an ounce of mystical nonsense in either.
As an undergraduate during the early 1950s, I had taken some classes--at Brandeis University, outside Boston--from a well-known but underemployed young pedagogue-composer-conductor named Leonard Bernstein. After graduation and a lengthy sojourn in Italy, I returned to the United States to find work on the backstage periphery of the music world.
The association with Bernstein, superficial as it may have been, had become negotiable during my years away from this country. It led first to the reclusive, cultivated Dimitri Mitropoulos, then--in 1957--chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic, who engaged me to do some writing for him.
One day, he took me to his lunchtime hangout, the La Scala restaurant on Manhattan’s West 54th Street, where we were joined by none other than Bernstein, who was on the verge of making his big breakthrough: sharing the New York Philharmonic with Mitropoulos and subsequently assuming total control.
Their conversation (I was content to listen) concerned the upcoming season’s soloists, one of them being Artur Rubinstein, an authenticated, card-carrying Living Legend, whom they discussed for what seemed an eternity--with respect, with humor, above all with affection, to the point where I felt that he was the fourth at lunch.
Neither Mitropoulos nor Bernstein had chummed around in the Paris of the ‘20s with Picasso, Stravinsky, the Princess de Polignac, Cocteau, Chaliapin, Coco Chanel, Sacha Guitry, Yvonne Printemps, various and sundry Rothschilds. Neither Mitropoulos nor Bernstein was a famous womanizer, as Rubinstein had been in his infamous youth; neither claimed, as Rubinstein did, to be able to determine the sex of a lobster (cooked) at 10 paces or the vintage of a Chateau Lafite-Rothschild at a single sip (or was it a sniff?), and neither smoked footlong cigars.
That lunch led to my first actual meeting with the great man in April, 1958. My parents had surprised me with a couple of hard-to-come-by tickets for the Rubinstein concert that night with the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein conducting. I took my aspiring-concert-pianist buddy Danny Weigel. After the concert, courtesy of Mitropoulos, Danny and I were ushered into the green room to meet him .
Now you should know that Danny-- “Thumper” to his friends, for the fact that he could force an almost illicit amount of volume from a piano--worshiped Rubinstein, the high-flying life style as much as the pianist. As musicians, however, they couldn’t have been further apart, the one (Danny) all unwitting affectation, the other the essence of naturalness.
Thumper eventually got up the courage to ask some questions about notes he hadn’t heard before in the Brahms concerto that had just been played. Weakened by the anticipation of a personal introduction to his idol, Danny had not been listening to the music rationally. Those odd notes were, in fact, clinkers.
To Thumper’s question as to the origin of the strange edition played, Rubinstein responded, in his most lordly fashion, “Preussische Staatsbibliothek! The Prussian State Library in Berlin. I’m surprrrised you’re not familiar with the edition.”
Thumper . . . silent, abashed. Whereupon Rubinstein explodes in laughter: “Wrong notes, my serious young friend. Just cleaning the spaces between the piano’s teeth. That’s all it was.” And he proffered one of those immense Cuban cigars he favored.
So, here were are, a full century after his birth--a happy occasion tinged by some bemusement over the fact that no one has yet seen fit to reissue his immensely flavorful two-part autobiography: “My Young Years” and “My Later Years,” published by Knopf in 1973 and 1980, respectively.
But what we needed most in 1987, as tribute and as musical sustenance, has arrived: RCA’s compact-disc reissues of his recordings made mostly between from 1958 to 1967, an extraordinarily productive decade in a performing life that spanned an incredible 81 years.
Rubinstein CDs have been appearing on RCA sporadically during the past three years, but now, in one mighty, marvelous torrent, come some 15 such handsomely remastered discs.
Pride of place goes to his Polish compatriot Chopin, the composer most logically allied to Rubinstein’s benignly Romantic temperament. Six releases of Chopin’s music have been added to the compact discography: the two Concertos (RCA 5612), the Nocturnes (5613, 2 CDs), the Mazurkas (5614, 2 CDs), seven Polonaises (5615), the two mature Sonatas and F-minor Fantasy (5616) and a collection of major miscellany including the “Barcarolle” and the Impromptus (5617).
What one has to marvel at first in Rubinstein’s Chopin is how simple it is, how robust, with such contempt for the dreamy, precious style (predicated on Chopin’s physical fragility) espoused by Rubinstein’s contemporary, Alfred Cortot. Rubinstein brought Chopin out of the salon and sickroom into the fresh air.
Yet, Rubinstein’s artistry is not of a sort likely to inspire frenzied adulation. There is little here that can be characterized by such adjectives as heroic or profound . What says it much better is, natural . And always that rounded, singing tone, experienced so potently in, say, the “Barcarolle,” the D-flat Nocturne, the slow movement of the B-minor Sonata.
Then, too, there is a disc devoted to Schumann (5667): his “Carnaval"--treated for once as it should be, as a strand of small, self-contained whimsies rather than as a unified “concert suite,” ever building toward a climax--and that delight of semi-pro pianists, the Opus 12 “Fantasiestuecke,” played with an artlessness rarely encountered among the great pianists.
Rubinstein was a recitalist, a man who worked, and worked for, his audience. Alone on the stage, he was a giant. But in later life he felt diminished by the presence of an orchestra, unwilling to share the spotlight with other bodies and with another star, the conductor. And, indeed, his concerto recordings are on the whole less successful than the solo efforts. In connection with which, another reminiscence.
It was April, 1964, and the 77-year-old pianist was to appear at a New York Philharmonic Pension Fund concert. His program: nothing less than both immense Brahms concertos. His conductor: the feared, vitriolic George Szell, scourge of the Romantics.
At their first encounter, in the late 1930s, Rubinstein and Szell had had a memorable dust-up, chronicled in “My Later Years”: In rehearsal, after the piano’s first entrance in Brahms’ B-flat Concerto, Szell shouted out, “Schnabel took it slower,” referring to the sober, scholarly Artur Schnabel. Then, during a lengthy break, Szell lectured Rubinstein on exactly how Schnabel played it, whereupon Rubinstein exploded, “Tell your Artur that this Artur feels it in a different way.” Szell and Rubinstein were--and remained--a mismatch.
Well, prior to the April, 1964, reunion, Szell laid an enormous egg when he informed a newspaper interviewer that it took only a few weeks of his podium presence to bring the New York Philharmonic back up to par. Although many observers agreed with Szell’s assessment, his timing was terrible: He was to conduct the orchestra on the day the interview appeared in print.
Not surprisingly, the orchestra members were enraged by Szell’s tactlessness, andshortly before the concert a group of players deputized itself a committee in charge of returning the favor. They did this in such a way as to drive the uncannily sharp-eared conductor bonkers, while the audience at large wouldn’t notice. Certain key players would lag fractionally behind the beat during the opening work on the program, the feather-light, exquisitely detailed “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Overture of Mendelssohn. The action was tantamount to stabbing Szell in the eardrum. And it worked, after a fashion.
The following day, prior to rehearsal for the concert with Rubinstein, a telegram arrived on the orchestra manager’s desk. It was from Szell’s doctor, informing us that his patient had a “severe flu” and would regretfully have to pass up the Pension Fund concert.
When a long-faced Philharmonic minion informed Rubinstein of the defection, the pianist simply said something on the order of, “Now we can get my kind of conductor.” What he meant was a more pliable conductor, one who would stay out of the way. For, as Rubinstein insisted, his audience didn’t care much about concertos anyway.
So the late Alfred Wallenstein, former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a favorite of Rubinstein’s at the time, was brought in. The Pension Fund Concert turned out to be a non-collaboration with, interestingly, Rubinstein well below his best level, even in consideration of his advanced years.
Not that this is the case with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony in Brahms’ D-minor Concerto (RCA 5668), the earliest of these recordings, dating from 1954 and one of the earliest available examples of stereophonic sound.
Reiner was too forceful a conductor to take a back seat to anyone. And, anyway, Rubinstein may in 1954 not have been quite so fixated on his solitary position vis-a-vis “his” audience. The performance is magnificent: a meeting of powerful equals and, for listeners sated with the usual hectoring, slam-bang approach to this work, a lyric revelation.
In Brahms’ B-flat Concerto (5671), however, Josef Krips proves to be a latter-day-Rubinstein sort of conductor, mushily fading into the background, providing none of the stimulus a soloist needs to give his best.
Conversely, in Chopin’s E-minor Concerto (5612), Rubinstein’s compatriot Stanislaw Skrowaczewski proves both supportive and strong, while in the companion F-minor Concerto, Wallenstein leads a bumpy, roughly executed accompaniment. Rubinstein’s playing, however, is superb in both--virile, poetic, miraculously fluent. These are, after all, hardly concertos in the literal sense. Rather, they are accompanied sonatas in which the pianist reigns if not alone then certainly supreme.
The most problematic of the late-Rubinstein recordings with orchestra are the five Beethoven concertos, taped between 1964 and 1967. Here he becomes a solo act, as distinct from being a soloist. His nominal teammates are the Boston Symphony conducted by Erich Leinsdorf; the couplings are as follows: No. 1, with the “Moonlight” Sonata (5674); Nos. 2 and 3 (5675); Nos. 4 and 5 (5676).
Leinsdorf--nobody’s patsy--does his thing, heroically, resonantly, while Rubinstein does his intimately, with the close-up sound that he and his most frequent producer, Max Wilcox, favored for the 1961 sessions in Rome for the Chopin Nocturnes. It is as if the two components of the concertos had been recorded in separate rooms. Nor does there seem to be a great deal of enthusiasm on the pianist’s part, his playing lacking scope, spirit and color. These are the most readily expendable portions of the RCA/Rubinstein legacy.
And no way for a passionate admirer to end his musing. Better to direct your attention to the priceless mementos, recorded live, of the pianist’s 10-recital Carnegie Hall marathon of 1961.
The program (5670) is compounded of short pieces by Schumann (a dreamy rendition of the “Arabeske”) and memories of Rubinstein’s riotous Paris days in the form of works by Debussy (his “Ondine” has rarely been given more loving, yet clear-eyed treatment), Szymanowski, Villa-Lobos (whose music he introduced to Europe), Prokofiev (incomparably fanciful readings of his “Visions fugitives”).
Albeniz’s “Navarra,” a favorite Rubinstein encore, and one of the few grandstanding virtuoso pieces retained through his final years before the public, ends the program with the sort of roaring enthusiasm that characterized the offstage Rubinstein. Here is the entertainer in all his glittering splendor, the poet having been amply documented earlier on in RCA’s magnificent--and, it is a pleasure to report--ongoing tribute.