I have such fond memories of pianist Arthur Rubinstein. In his late eighties he would routinely tackle two or more major concerti in one concert, and do full justice to each. This disc of Brahms solo piano works, recorded in December 1959, captures him in his seventies, close to his peak. JVC has brought us this disc using their latest XRCD24 technology, and I for one will thank them for it. I would thank them all the more if they provided English liner notes. How's your Japanese?
There are three works on this disc, separated by two weeks and by about forty years. Brahms composed his three piano sonatas as a teenager, while the Intermezzo in E and Romance in F are works of his full maturity. The recordings were made in the reverse order at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City. The Sonata was recorded two weeks after the shorter works. Something must have happened between the two sessions, since the recording quality differs enormously. The Intermezzo and Romance are recorded in a full-bodied and open acoustic, but the Sonata sounds as if someone had turned on a treble filter, cutting off harmonics and giving a pale imitation of Rubinstein's glorious sonorities. The pitch stability also seems questionable at times. This is not JVC's fault — it has always been so with these recordings. In fact JVC has done a fine job to restore something of the very special Rubinstein sound that concertgoers have always known and few recordings have captured.
You may feel disappointed that the major work here, the sonata, has inferior sound while the miniatures fare so much better. You should not judge the worth of a piece by its length, nor by its title. Beethoven was chided once for writing Bagatelles at the end of his career. "Ah", he replied, "Bagatelles by Beethoven!" In this case, the sonata is a work I can well live without, lacking the gravitas and beauty of his later works. But the Intermezzo and Romance are sublime pieces, and I would buy this disc just for them.
Your taste may vary, of course. Robert Schumann certainly felt the early sonatas were works of genius, so you are in excellent company if you don't share my opinion.
After the initial shock at the disappointing sound in the sonata, my ears adjusted and I could begin to enjoy the performance. The playing opens in a deeply committed way, in line with the Maestoso marking. Rubinstein brings a strong romantic approach to the music, much more so than in his Chopin. In the second movement Andante, he brings a lighter improvisatory touch, as if he were playing the music for the first time, making discoveries along the way. Gradually he casts a spell over the listener, and it is wonderful to hear the beauty of tone, the subtle gradations of weight. This is true virtuosity. There follows a steady increase in power, tension and volume without harshness, although the piano is overly resonant at the end of this movement. The Scherzo brings lilting but restrained playing with complete independence of the two hands. Rubinstein succeeds magnificently in tying the disparate strands of this movement into a coherent whole. In the fourth movement Intermezzo, he assigns different voices to the various strands of music, so we hear a conversation that is easy to follow. At one point we hear the opening of Beethoven's Fifth, but upside down. In the Finale, the rhythms are alive, each phrase sets up the next, and excitement builds from a slow start. Rubinstein shows no strain as the pace quickens and a variety of ideas are displayed—patriotic tunes, modulations, three blind mice, a pullback on the reins, a gig and then a final romp. This may not be great music, but it certainly gets a great performance.
The Intermezzo in E, all 2 minutes and 53 seconds of it, yields wonderful sonorities, as if someone had opened the curtains that had separated us from the performer. It is at once clearer, more forward, and with more body. This work is a gem, and here is the Rubinstein I remember. The keyword is communication. Rubinstein speaks directly to the heart. The perfect tempo, the singing tone and the variety of phrasing set this performance apart from all others. There are many fine performances of the Sonata, but no one can rival Rubinstein in this late Brahms. This is on a par with his performance of the Brahms Piano Quartet Op 25 in G Minor with the Guarneri Quartet (RCA 5677-2-RG), and I believe people will be listening to this in awe a hundred years from now. By contrast, Walter Klein's gentle performance (Turnabout TV 34165S) has no magic for me – the music never leaves the page. Gieseking (Seraphim IB-6117) opens at a slower pace, and his profound intimate playing proceeds like a flower opening. But he does not vary the voicing like Rubinstein, and the recording quality is shallow at best.
The Romance in F concludes this brief disc (total playing time 41:39). Rubinstein offers a carefully controlled legato that again speaks directly to me. There is truth and beauty in this performance, and magic again pours from the ten fingers of the maestro. When you hear playing of this order, you can conceive no other way the music can be played--this is it. Klein, a magician in Mozart, offers more variation in tempo, but this seems forced and unnatural after Rubinstein, who lets the music breath with its own pulse. Gieseking's playing is quite similar to Rubinstein's, but his piano sound is more fragile and less detail emerges in the faster passages.
So, fine performances in all three works, but a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde character to the compositions themselves and the recording quality. My advice, buy it for the Jekyll.