Altara ALT 1021, (2 CDs) 74:31; 62:25 (Distrib. Albany) ****:
In 1960, the 150th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982) served as Honorary Chairman of the Sixth Chopin International Piano Competition, which included a distinguished panel of judges: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Stefan Ashkenase, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and Witold Malcuzynski. Rubinstein himself appeared in two concertos under Witold Rowicki (1914-1989), distinguished conductor of the Warsaw Philharmonic and Polish National Orchestra.
The immediacy of Rubinstein’s playing in the opening Chopin Concerto is its utter spontaneity and poetic breadth. At 73, Rubinstein had learned to enjoy playing the piano, and his electric elan infuses every note, the sheer fluency of his sprezzatura. The whole first movement evolves entirely of one seamless cloth, a focused intention that bears no gaps or smudges; no “rubs,” as Macbeth might put it. Before we know it, noble Larghetto has begun, its mysteries and sacred song forever a Rubinstein staple. Each phrase immaculately and sensuously projected, Chopin’s liquid lines, proceeding by way of lithe ornaments, achieve any number of noble gestures. The middle section is all shimmering melodrama, the nervously palpitating strings supporting arioso and declamatory runs from Rubinstein’s fleet fingers. The last movement’s mazurka-laden Rondo has Rubinstein applying bold strokes, consummate acrobatics in rhythm and dynamic nuance, the Warsaw Philharmonic in splendid, shared leaps and somersaults.
Equally extroverted figures open the Brahms B-flat Concerto, the French horn and strings ushering in heroic gestures from Rubinstein, in a performance even more spontaneous than his fine commercial inscriptions of this work with Coates and Munch. Rowicki applies an erotic paintbrush to the exposition, the linear energy reminiscent of Toscanini’s collaborations with Horowitz. Huge, rounded periods mark the first movement, punctuated by the romantic tone, ardor, and sweep that inevitably characterize the Rubinstein touch. The stunning peroration elicits some rapt applause from the audience. The D Minor Scherzo is all muscle, tinted with nostalgic mystery. When the fireworks break loose, both soloist and inspired orchestra lift the carillon of sound with visceral commitment. More claps, but they do not deter the cello soloist (Aleksander Ciechanski) from entering immediately upon his elegant aria, soon joined by oboe and piano solo. Rubinstein’s upper register sings with especial eloquence, brilliant but without any distracting ping to the colors. Cello, winds, strings, and keyboard play out the last pages in vivid, dreamy strokes. The final movement, Allegretto grazioso, may seem a trifle fast to some tastes, but the elasticity and savoir faire from all participants quite caries the audience away; and several notes before the brisk coda the audience is already expressing its unabashed enthusiasm for one of them most durable and consistently satisfying of all classical pianists.
The second disc opens with Rubinstein’s announcement in Polish of the A-flat Major Polonaise, and heroic it is. The runs alone are worth the price of admission, not to mention Rubinstein’s gripping accelerations of tempo and seamless ornamentations. After a wicked brigade of horses gallops by, the thunderous da capo raises Rubinstein’s admirers out of their collective seats. We then have a full rehearsal of the Brahms B-flat Concerto, which both soloist and conductor are willing to let proceed with few interruptions, and some heated playing from Rowicki’s horns and tympani. After the whole first movement, the adjustments come, like at letter F and the pulsating strings and horns marking the transition back to the recapitulation. Cut to the coda statement for orchestra, reworking the string attacks. Then the Allegro appassionato second movement, the horns in sharp echo to the keyboard. More adjustments in the octave runs by Rubinstein; but, after one minute, the Andante’s beauteous cello solo has begun. A symphonic elegy emerges with cello obbligato and echoes from a sweet oboe. Rubinstein’s entry sounds like a forgotten Brahms intermezzo. “Marvelous,” exclaims Rubinstein, singing the cello line himself. The last movement, busy, sweetly staccato and syncopated runs. Many claps and bouncing of col legno strings to acknowledge the Old Master’s grasp the B-flat Concerto, a work he comes to authentically, via Joachim himself.
— Gary Lemco