CHOPIN: 7 Polonaises; Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op. 22 – Artur Rubinstein, piano
Naxos Historical 8.111346, 73:16 [Not distr. in the U.S.] ****:
To have celebrated the Chopin bicentennial without having reevaluated the immortal work of the composer’s most enthusiastic interpreter, Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982), would have been inconceivable. The Polish pianist recorded the seven polonaises three times, and these inscriptions for RCA’s Hollywood studio 1950-1951 remain among his most honored renditions, here remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn. Besides their innate musicality and attention to the Chopin style, they reveal a mature Rubinstein whose elan at sitting before the keyboard had at last permeated every bar he recorded.
Stylistic security and rhythmic vigor mark all of the polonaise renditions by Rubinstein, though some will argue that his “authentic” Chopin style owed more to the Brahms tradition and Joachim, whose personal rubato permitted the left hand to shade the right instead of maintaining an unaltered pulsation as the basis of every Chopin dance form. The set of polonaises, nonetheless, generate an innate nationalism and nobility of purpose, beginning with the 21 May 1951 C-sharp Minor, Op. 26, with Rubinstein‘s tender application of its secondary theme in the enharmonic D-flat. The A Major “Military” Polonaise, Op. 40, No. 1 (28 September 1950) enjoys the Rubinstein resolute approach, forthright, direct, and without any sag in the driven line. A dramatic delight is the C Minor, Op. 40, No. 2 (27 September 1950), with its heavy, ominous bass tread, what Rubinstein himself declared to be a symbol of Polish tragedy. The shift to A-flat Major allows the thoughtful Rubinstein to emerge, the music’s verging on a rhythmic nocturne whose ostinati soon relapse into the almost morbid obsession of the opening darkness.
The huge Polonaise in F-sharp Minor, Op. 44 (23 May 1951) displays Rubinstein’s massive trills, the boldness of the opening gesture unrelenting in its fury until the first period ends on a half cadence that leads to a galloping motif, ostinato. Rubinstein’s attacks prove quite pungent, though decidedly less feathery than those of Horowitz. The middle section must confound Chopin experts as to whether a mazurka or a nocturne is at work, though the latter form maintains the Polish identity while assuaging the anger. The music has transferred the milieu from the city square to the salon, almost an improvisation. The eternal Heroic Polonaise, Op. 53 (28 September 1950) stands forever as a Rubinstein staple, begins modestly enough, then erupts into bravura demonstration of what kind of octave power Rubinstein could project in full flight. The E Major gallop is worthy of Tennyson’s Six Hundred, and Rubinstein delivers each hammer chord with focused authority and unstoppable acceleration. Fabulous trills and weaving harmonies modulate to bring us back to the golden throne of its opening motif.
Rubinstein recorded this version of the 1846 Polonaise-Fantasie on 13 December 1950. In a series of plastic gestures, Rubinstein captures its five themes and forward-looking harmony to synthesize its exotic format of dance and fantasia. The sensuality of the first pages has us likening Rubinstein to his self-indulgent alter-ego Horowitz. Rubinstein, however, keeps the tread light, even gossamer in texture, despite the often brilliant and fast-paced fioritura Chopin demands. Rubinstein does not emphasize the polyphony for it own sake but rather keeps the flux in motion, the fantasy element weaving a learned improvisation. The poetry evolves into a fiery processional but always fluid, dreamlike, verging on the impressionism that both the Symbolists and Debussy would embrace. The last pages become inflamed, even Roman in their hard patina.
Rubinstein finished this cycle of polonaises with the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise, Op. 22 (1834; 1830, composed in reverse) on 14 December 1950. The “spianato” designation suggests a smooth, legato “plane” surface. Thematically, it is not related to the ensuing Grand Polonaise. Rubinstein provides a glowing cascade of tone–though none has ever equaled Josef Hofmann’s performance at the MET–for the opening Andante, his pearly play here invoking the bel canto tradition of French singing. The stately transition march gives us gem of infinite rhythmic wisdom. The theme of the Grand Polonaise might be prosaic by Chopin’s later standards, but its signature opposing balances and exquisite turns attest to the salon style of bejeweled ladies and mustachioed hussars. Rubinstein delivers the crisp repeated A-flats with a impish aplomb, quite sure his lady of the evening will succumb to the poetic fights of fancy and sheer torrent of sound that celebrates his national pride.