Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No 8, 14, 23, 26 / Rubinstein

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When I was young, there were three pianists whom I always hoped to be able to hear in person, Rudolf Serkin, Vladimir Horowitz, and Arthur Rubenstein. I finally heard all three, Horowitz only once. These were, of course, the most high-profile pianists living in the United States in the post-WW II years, and all three had prominent recording contracts to keep their names available.

I don’t suppose I have heard these (1962–63) recordings for 30 or more years, and revisiting old pleasures can be a disappointing experience. My youthful enthusiasm anointed Serkin as the ultimate keeper of Beethoven’s flame and relegated Rubinstein to the category of a good show. Time and experience tempered these judgments, as they must, and hearing Rubinstein live several times certainly gave nuance to what a “good show” ought to be. I think what finally did it was letting myself hear Rubinstein’s astonishing sense of line and delicacy of touch, which drew rather than propelled us through even the well-known bars of the “Moonlight” Sonata. I have always admired the way his playing makes each note suggest there is an obvious following one that will appear in its due course. Above all, in his playing there is the sense of the sheer pleasure he takes in it. By this I do not mean he is self-indulgent or willful or careless. On the contrary. Though I recall him as a good showman and though there was the occasional fluff, I always had the sense that when he sat down at the piano, Beethoven came first.

The sonatas here are the “warhorses” of the repertoire, of course, and there is good reason for that: they are sturdy stuff. But how many actually play the triplets of the first movement of No. 14 “with a most delicate touch,” as Beethoven asks of the whole movement, and make them go somewhere? How many can? Rubinstein does so and uses that to create an urgency only released by the arrival of the tune in m. 10, a melody, in turn, urged toward its resolution in m. 22. What sets Rubinstein apart for me is that he does this not by driving us through the music but by drawing us along with it: this is not Bach à la Beethoven. This is not to say that Rubinstein is all delicacy: subtlety need not be understated, nor passion overplayed. There is fire enough when called for, as in the last movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata, for example. In 29/6, James Reel called this playing “poetic,” and we have need of such poetry today.

FANFARE: Alan Swanson Reviewing earlier release

Product Description:

  • Release Date: April 05, 2011

  • Catalog Number: 88697688822

  • UPC: 886976888220

  • Label: Sony

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Performer: Artur Rubinstein