Discovering Rubinstein's Aristocratic Touch in Brahms

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The Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein recently placed fourth in a ranking of the "10 greatest pianists of all time” by the Australian magazine Limelight — behind Serge Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter. Too low, you say? Rubinstein may not have been blessed with the sheer virtuosity or crowd-pleasing recital instincts of the higher-ranked pianists, but he also had a long, cosmopolitan career and a massive recorded legacy.

Thirty years after Rubinstein's death, Sony Masterworks has assembled a nine-CD box of his Brahms recordings for RCA Victor, spanning the years 1954 to 1972. The set includes solo pieces, the two concertos and a generous helping of chamber music by the composer whom Rubinstein once called his favorite. 

Rubinstein is often described as an "aristocratic" pianist, referring to his golden tone and poetic sensibility, a description that seemed to connect with the burly qualities in Brahms’s piano music. The set leads off with the 1954 recording of the Piano Concerto No. 1 with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. This originally appeared in mono, but an experimental stereo version surfaced in the late 1970s, giving us a fuller, more three-dimensional sonic experience. A 1958 performance of the Second Concerto with an RCA pick-up orchestra is also included here.

By the time many of these recordings were made, Rubinstein was becoming an elder statesman (he famously performed well into his 80s) and his interpretations had become simpler and more direct. This is all to the good in a 1970 recording of the Ballades and Intermezzos, where the dramatic music makes its own points. Of the chamber pieces, the set showcases Rubinstein’s longtime partnerships with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (the cello sonatas), Henryk Szeryng (the violin sonatas) and the Guarneri Quartet (the piano quartets).

As with a recent set of Charles Munch's recordings, this collection lacks program notes and even a simple biography. Nonetheless, the set will cost you less than $25, and it's far more manageable than the 94-CD collection of his complete works released in 1999.

Rubinstein Plays Brahms
Arthur Rubinstein, piano
Sony BMG
Available at Arkivmusic.com