CD Number: JVC XRCD24 JM-XR24008
"What Mr. Rubinstein offered, above all others, was the ability to transmit the joy of music." (New York Times obituary)
Last month I reviewed a disc of Arthur Rubinstein's Brahms, and I found wide variations in sound quality among the various works. Fortunately, this recording of Chopin's Second and Third Piano Sonatas features wonderful sound throughout. In fact, here is some of the most breathtakingly beautiful recorded piano sound I have heard. We can credit that in equal parts to Rubinstein's phenomenal piano tone and JVC's meticulous attention to detail in mastering this new release.
Cortot, Rubinstein and Lipatti changed our way of thinking about Chopin. Instead of treating it as salon music, replete with sentimentality and showy brilliance, these artists allowed the music to speak for itself. They did not banish rubato, but employed it with restraint and intelligence to produce a coherent whole from the expressive parts.
As Rubinstein's career progressed, his musicianship grew. The subtlety of his art reached heights in Chopin that are yet to be surpassed. I find it interesting to contrast his performance of the Second Sonata from 1947 (RCA Victor Gold Seal 60047-2-RG) with this 1961 performance. The timings of the four movements tell part of the story:
1946 versus 1961
The later performance breathes much more easily at its more relaxed tempos, and the clarity of line is greatly improved. Rubinstein is in better control of the keyboard, eliciting power and warmth in equal measure. The sound quality of the older recording is not good even for its day, so we cannot fully judge whether Rubinstein's touch also improved between the recording dates. But we can tell that this later recording has everything you could wish for in piano tone, from the fullness of the bass to the range of color and the brilliance of his attack. With Rubinstein, technique is always at the service of the music, never just for show. There is a mercurial quality to his playing that few can approach -- Lipatti and Argerich alone, in my view. Rubinstein is inside the composer's skin.
Of the two performances here, the famous Funeral March Sonata comes off best. I would venture to call it the best performance ever recorded. The opening movement with its serious demeanor and the second movement with its lilting rhythms are carefully shaped to build the tension that sets off the Funeral March that follows. However many times you've heard this movement, its impact is overwhelming here. The perfect weight of each note, the immediacy and fullness of the sound, and the poetry of the performance connect us directly to the composer's inner thoughts, and time stands still. Chopin wrote the funeral march first, and then built the sonata around it. The fleeting finale is an impressionist landscape here. How any machine based on hammers could produce this delicate sound is beyond me. It's a perfect ending.
Maurizio Pollini is one of today's leading interpreters of Chopin, so I listened carefully to his performance (DG 415 346-1). Pollini just does not show the quicksilver reflexes of a Rubinstein. Despite shorter timings in three of the four movements, his playing sounds more labored. Pollini does not allow the music to breath so easily, and the phrasing is nowhere near as natural. The fourth movement is well played, but lacks the ethereal quality Rubinstein brings.
Rubinstein also plays the Third Sonata very well, but this reading is not quite at the same level of excellence as in the Second. In particular, the fourth movement Presto could have a stronger shape. The nobility that Rubinstein brings to this work is equaled by Dinu Lipatti on his 1946 recording on Great Pianists of the 20th Century (Philips 456 892-2). The two performances are quite similar, the movements' timings almost identical, and Rubinstein's remarkable phrasing is matched by Lipatti's refinement and sensitivity, with fingers of steel behind the poetic vision. These two performers shared a genius for direct communication with the listener. These performances emerge fully formed and without artifice. Unfortunately the recording quality on Lipatti's disc does not match the studio sound of his final recordings just a few years later.
Pollini does not rise to these heights in the Third Sonata, although until the release of this XRCD24, his fine-sounding performance was among the best available, appearing on many recommended lists. His articulation is precise and his tone refined, although his is a rather cool view of the work.
I looked for inspiration in Kissin (BMG 74321 25807 2), who for me blows hot and cold. On a good day he can reach sublime levels of pianism, but apparently this recording is not from one of those days. The playing here is overwrought and ponderous. The sound suggests that it was recorded in a rather spacious bathroom. This is a self-indulgent performance with excessive rubato and some strange hesitations that left me confused and disappointed.
My top recommendation in both sonatas goes to this fine new reissue. It is one for the ages.