Thursday, February 16, 2012

Arthur Rubinstein in Hamburg

I am a Youtube addict.

But when you have documentaries and legendary performances by Rubinstein, Horowitz, Richter, Gilels, Bernstein, Mehta, Ozawa, Abbado, Von Karajan, Menuhin, Stern, Ferras, du Pre and Ma at the click of the mouse, how can you resist? Recently, a kind soul posted an entry that I have enjoyed immensely. If you go into the Youtube site and type “Rubinstein in Hamburg”, you will be rewarded with a documentary, less than 30 minutes in length, about Arthur Rubinstein’s visit to the Steinway & Sons factory in Hamburg.

Because of the tragedy of the two world wars, and especially because of the atrocities committed by Germany during World War II, Arthur Rubinstein made the decision not to perform in Germany and Austria. To this end, the pianist even directed royalties from records sold in Germany towards helping victims of the holocaust. He did, however, made several trips to these two countries for personal and professional reasons. He went to Salzburg to attend a performance of Wagner’s Meistersinger, one of his favourite operas (he named one of his daughters, Eva, after the heroine in the opera), Frankfurt to promote his memoirs, and Hamburg on a couple of occasions to choose pianos.

The documentary I mentioned before is a record of one of Rubinstein’s visit to the Steinway factory, to try out one of his pianos sent there for repairs. In it, the pianist tried out the piano by playing snippets from various works in his vast repertoire, works by Chopin, Ravel and Schubert. In addition to the historical significance of the visit, the documentary once again reinforced in my mind the greatness of this particular artist, and the emotional impact of hearing Arthur Rubinstein live.

Watching Rubinstein at the piano is a lesson, not just about playing the instrument, but on an artist’s entire approach to music and to art. Moreover, viewing a Rubinstein performance gives us a revelation of healthy use of one’s body. According to Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri String Quartet, who frequently played and recorded with Mr. Rubinstein, music “was like food for him: he was living off the experience of making music. He wasn’t expending energy; he was getting energy.”

When Arthur Rubinstein plays the piano, he is intently listening to the music being made at the moment. When the pianist plays, he is not only playing an instrument, or even playing music, he is music. There is simplicity, as well as a complete naturalness and honesty in his playing, physically as well as musically, that I have witnessed in no other pianist. Daniel Barenboim commented that Rubinstein made it sound like someone who did no more than simply being willing to take the time.

I am grateful that such a moving documentary about Mr. Rubinstein exists and is available. In today’s musical world, where many artists are more concerned about what they wear on stage than the music they play, watching Arthur Rubinstein again reminds us of another time when music was a noble calling and not a mere “career”.

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