Artur Rubinstein, Piano: Chopin, Impromptus and Other Works


Read almost any article about Artur Rubinstein's playing and, in addition to seeing epithets like "ideal Chopinist," you're likely to encounter the adjective "aristocratic" or "patrician." I wonder whether such critics and reviewers ever stop to think about the meaningless fluff they spew. Not just because it's hyperbolic and unreflective, but because, in this case, it's false. Rubinstein, a self-styled humanitarian and pianist of the people, was anything but "aristocratic"—and, more importantly, the by-and-large directionless, limp, and tepid playing on this disc is decidedly plebeian. Regarding Rubinstein's success, I can only conclude that it's easy for the masses to agree on playing that doesn't challenge them to think or form their own opinions. Let's just say that in the opinion of this listener, Chopin should sound like more than elevator music, and I could find nary a note in the performances on this disc that would inspire me to listen again or that made me see anything new about the Polish master. Not only that, but I'd hazard a guess that there is many a current student at Curtis or Juilliard whose playing sounds more technically polished than Rubinstein's, equally pedestrian though it may be.

As for the repertoire represented on this disc, it runs the gamut from "fairly well known to most piano music aficionados" (impromptus, barcarolle, berceuse, and andante spaniato) to "relatively obscure except to ardent Chopinphiles" (bolero, nouvelles etudes, and tarentelle). 

One of the few positive things I can find to say is that it was nice to hear the bolero again—and since there are relatively few benchmark performances to use as comparison, Rubinstein's playing here wasn't quite as disappointing to me as it was in the more mainstream repertoire. Oddly, he also seemed better prepared for the bolero technically (though it's not a particularly difficult piece by Chopin standards). Still, Rubinstein fails to elicit any Spanishness from it. The fantasia-like introduction is girly and wan, and many of the polonaise-like rhythms are imprecise and tubby. In the coquettish slow melodic sections, he's predominantly interested in reassuring himself that he has a pretty sound rather than in making music. This is even more true of the impromptus and barcarolle, which are utterly devoid of spontaneity and passion. 

Further, despite the claims of some Rubinstein groupies about his "natural" approach, his performances of these well-known works are actually marred by excesses of tempo and rhythm. In the barcarolle, for example, there are several instances in which he almost brings the music to a  jarring standstill to mark the transition between sections, breaking the flow of the music. Conversely, when a phrase needs retention, such as in the four noble chords that announce the third impromptu's ending, he speeds up and plays them in a perfunctory and clunky manner. Another illustration of his flabby conception of tempo is the fiorotura passagework in the middle section of the first impromptu and in the first page of the second impromptu, as well as the berceuse filigree; it drags and sputters when it should charm. And his tempo in the fantasie-impromptu is too darn sluggish; there's no storminess or frenzy. Here Rubinstein seems to languish and drool over every note—there's no panache or an overall conception of sound.

The most disappointing aspect of this playing, though, is the complete lack of imagination, particularly on the barcarolle, which is, to be fair, one of Chopin's hardest works to interpret. Richter and Horowitz sound scared of it, Cortot too barging and assertive, and Sofronitsky too frenetic, but at least they all have something to say, and they're all much better than this. This piece contains some of classical music's grandest phrases, which Rubinstein approaches with little intensity or excitement. To be sure, he thumps out those bassline accompanimental chords forcefully, but there's not a whit of amorous abandon. In Rubinstein's hands, it doesn't sound like a love song— it's more like the monologue of a pre-pubescent boy who's conflicted about his sexuality. 

He couldn't even muster any fire in the tarantella. It may partly be because his technique sounds unsure in this tricky piece. Throughout, there are quite a few unevennesses, particularly with the pedal— his use of that tool often makes the instrument sound tinkly when it should sound rich. Technical quibbles aside, Rubinstein's slow, mechanical rendition lacks the piece's quintessential qualities of humor, paranoia, and energy. You won't hear any fear of the eponymous spider here, I'm afraid.

Bottom line: these are often hyped as essential Chopin interpretations, but they'd be lucky to be considered mediocre by professional standards. Indeed, maybe mediocrity is their primary selling point. This is playing for the everyman pianist, interpretations that don't inspire reflection, that are perfect for the uninformed fast-food generation who view the Masterpiece Theatre theme song as the summit of classical music. As for me, I can't understand why, when one can listen to the masterful interpretations of Friedman (second impromptu), Barere (first impromptu), Saperton (nouvelles etudes), Sofronitsky (barcarolle), Hofmann (andante spaniato and berceuse), or Cortot (all of the above), one would ever dignify this disc with a second listen. 

Joe's Grade: C-      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016