|Review by sgb July 21, 2006 (7 of 7 found this review helpful)
|I recall seeing an hour-long program on PBS entitled "Rubinstein At 80" that was re-broadcast shortly after his death. It was a fascinating admixture of biographical notes from the producers and comments from the artist about music in general spiced with some self-criticism about his own playing. Rubinstein would be the first to aver, as he did herein, that he was not a technically competent pianist, but he insisted that so much of what distinguishes the technical craftsman from himself was, rather, the sense that playing the notes correctly is only half of what determines an artist's creativity and his affinity for the music he plays. He went on to say that many great pianists could more successfully combine the craft with the art than he.
I suppose that the artist's reputation might reveal a scant bit of tongue-in-cheek among those comments of his. Rubinstein's many and various recordings for RCA demonstrate his well-known insistence that his piano overshadow the orchestra in those sorts of recordings, an indication that his own art was competent enough to outdo his supporting musicians. Such an assessment is, however, just as useful to the solo recordings he made, this Beethoven Sonatas recording being quite typical.
Overall, there is more of a sense that we are listening to Rubinstein playing the piano than we are to hearing the artist play Beethoven. Rubinstein's way with these most famous sonatas is Rubinstein's way, and we hear this quite convincingly. His Moonlight opens with a bit slower tempo than convention would dictate. Yet, there's a diligence to his playing here that allays any doubt about his technical competence. The movement is note perfect and adamant; the allegretto is remarkably similar to what we would expect from any pianist of this calibre, suggesting that he can play with the best of them. Surprisingly, in the presto agitato he reverts to that same sort of individualism that distinguishes Rubinstein from, say, a Kempf, a Gulda or any other such gifted contemporary noted for their Beethoven. There's a spritely quality to the playing here (and overall) that invites the listener to hear the Moonlight Sonata as a refreshing departure from those academically correct performances that contend for space on collectors' shelves, and, as such, makes this reissue highly recommendable.
The Pathétique is just as unique. From the opening keystroke, we know this will not be your average reading. There is something here, though that suggests to me that Rubinstein misses some of the power of this work in those opening moments. It lilts just a little more than I prefer, giving one less of a sense of the tragic beauty the composer might have meant. But it is also less mechanical than what we hear from even the best of the interpreters. There's a fluency to this movement and the adagio that follows that makes this one of the most emotionally attractive performances of this work I've ever heard despite its reticence. I'm on the edge of my seat, listening intently for each note, each phrase. The Appassionata is not quite up to these two just discussed, yet it is certainly deserving of its place among the most rewarding performances I've heard.
The sound quality here is typical of many of the RCA reissued SACDs . I have downgraded my assessment of the sound to 3.5 stars merely because I find the piano too closely "miked" and, at times, strangely off center.
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