CD Number: JVC XRCD24 JM-XR24009
This is the third of the Arthur Rubinstein recordings from the 50's and 60's recently reissued on the JVC XRCD24 label. The four Scherzos, written at different times in Chopin's life, rank among his finest works and have elicited some very fine performances over the years. This disc can be added to the list of recommended recordings, but it does not represent the very pinnacle of Rubinstein's Chopin or displace my top recommendation in this repertoire, Sviatoslav Richter (SXLP 30510).
At its steep price and very short playing time (37m21s), this is among the most expensive recordings per minute of music. But JVC does bring these fine performances to us in the best sound they have had over the years, and I thank them for that. The piano is not quite so well captured as on the Chopin Sonata disc, with slightly less body to the piano, but it does sound remarkably full and clear for its age, and puts many later piano recordings to shame. The dynamic range captured here is very wide. This is particularly useful given the sudden sharp attack we hear, for instance, at 6m28s into the B minor Scherzo. Detracting slightly from the sound on the first three Scherzos are some occasional low-level ticks and scrapes on the left channel.
But there is no short measure in Rubinstein's performance, which is full-blooded and well constructed, with perfectly judged tempos. Yet the rubato is not quite so natural as in his later playing, and I wondered at times if the artist needed the stimulus of a live audience to spur him to greater heights. To understand this, you need only play Martha Argerich's Debut Recital, which features the C-Sharp Minor Scherzo in first-rate sound. This performance is electric and dazzling. From the very first notes you know that Argerich is in total command of sound and structure, and that technical difficulties simply do not exist for her. She keeps the dynamic range of her playing within careful bounds in the development in order to set up the magnificent climax. Despite her faster tempo, the music breathes more easily. What a shame she gives us just one Scherzo here. Rubinstein sounds a little tame after this.
Rubinstein reserves his best performance for the famous B-flat minor Scherzo, where he offers a greater dynamism and intersperses telling silences between phrases so that each section leads naturally to the next. How he achieves such forte playing without harshness is a constant miracle. No one plays this better. Kissin's performance as a teen from the live Tokyo recital Evgeny Kissin Plays Chopin (2) (MK 418017) is a most interesting alternative. He plays with rhythmic freedom and spontaneity, taking risk after risk which all succeed beautifully. His stupendous climax leads to a roar of approval from the Japanese audience.
Rubinstein's B minor Scherzo is a fine performance too, with careful use of rubato that propels the music forward. The pace is fast but not rushed, and his voicing is remarkable. He must have had a spectacular piano, as the tone is beautiful and powerful at once, with exceptional clarity and attack up top.
The Scherzo in E is less impressive here. The performance is wistful, relaxed and gentle, but does not match the inspiration found elsewhere on this disc. The finest performance of this Scherzo in my collection comes from Richter, who plays this, as he plays the entire set, in a flowing graceful style that makes this music sound more profound.
I very much enjoyed the two Scherzos (Nos. 1 & 2) that Vladimir Sofronitsky offers us in the Russian Piano School series (Melodiya 74321 25177 2). His 1960 recording from the Small Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire is more fleet-fingered than Rubinstein, with less gravitas but more freedom of phrasing. His dexterity is astonishing, although some details are obscured by the coarse, shallow nature of the recording.
Louisiana-born pianist, writer and actress Pamela Ross also offers us the complete set in a close recording with a lot of ambiance (88 Carat Productions CD5598). The pedals are prominent in her playing, giving a rich and varied sound. She has a fine technique, but there are too many hesitations and accelerations that call attention to themselves, breaking the flow of music. In the B-flat minor Scherzo her playing is loud but without the menace that Rubinstein brings.
If you are looking for the complete set, Richter is my first choice by a small margin over Rubinstein. He is not so well served by the recording, which lacks bite and clarity. But what his disc lacks in recorded sound it more than makes up for in the grand sweep and integrity of his playing throughout, which sounds closer to Beethoven in style than is common in Chopin performances.
A fine offering this Rubinstein disc, but I'll take Richter.