Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Choral Music from the High Renaissance

I attended the October 17th performance of the Vancouver Chamber Choir with great anticipation. The concert was billed as “High Renaissance – The Golden Age of Choral Music”, with music by, among others, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Palestrina, some of my favourite composers from the period.

The concert opened with Byrd’s Sing joyfully to God, an anthem for the publically sanctioned Anglican Church, and a setting of Ave verum corpus, written for services in the composer’s own Catholic faith. The twenty-five voices of the Vancouver Chamber Choir were joined in this work by FOCUS! Singers, made up of students from music schools throughout the lower mainland.

William Byrd’s compositional genius was so great that his Anglican masters (mostly) turned a blind eye to his refusal to give up the Catholic faith. Because the work was written for clandestine Catholic worship, I would venture a guess that Ave verum corpus was written for small performing forces, perhaps even one singer per voice part. Nevertheless, it was a joy to hear both works, diametrically opposite in atmosphere and feeling, performed with great musicality by a full complement of voices.

Appropriately, the programme continued with Palestrina’s setting of Stabat Mater dolorosa, a poetic depiction of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross, as well as an intercessory prayer to the Holy Mother and Jesus Christ. Palestrina’s compositional style was influenced by the precepts of the Council of Trent, which stated that sacred music should be reverential, simple, and that the words sung should always be clearly audible. There is, as stated in the programme notes, a “simple nobility of musical language” in the work, which the choir (without the aid of FOCUS! Singers) sang with great feeling and musicality. Throughout the concert, conductor John Washburn did a wonderful job of blending the voices of the choir, made up of professional singers, soloists in the own right, into a beautiful vocal ensemble.

The first half of the concert ended with Thomas Tallis’ setting of The Lamentations of Jeremiah. Like Byrd, Tallis was an avowed Roman Catholic that prospered in Anglican England. Tallis’s music was more complex, contrapuntally as well as harmonically, than that of Byrd and Palestrina. I could not help wonder about Tallis’s mindset when setting words like

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people…
Judah has gone into exile, after affliction and harsh labor…
Her foes have become her master…
Her children have gone into exile.

Did he write this music, using “safe” biblical verses, as a veiled protest to the persecution of Catholics in England? Again, the choir acquitted itself admirably, and sang beautifully this extensive and heartfelt work.

The choir continued its programme in the second half with Claudio Monteverdi’s poignant setting of Lagrime d’Amante al Sepolcro dell’ Amata, inspired (as the excellent notes tell us) by the death of a beautiful and talented singer who was a student of his. Although the notes refer to this work as a Baroque madrigal, I felt that it was musically and stylistically closer to the Renaissance works that were sung in the first half. It is no accident that Monteverdi is the father of Italian opera, for the work here is musically varied and intensely dramatic. Once again, the choir rose to the challenges of Monteverdi’s difficult. There was, in the louder passages of the work, shrillness, perhaps an edge, in the sound of the sopranos that marred this otherwise immaculate performance.

The choir returned to the religious atmosphere with the last two works of the concert. Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus, with its brief text taken from the Credo of the Catholic Mass (“He was crucified also for us, suffered under Pontius Pilate and was buried”), is an amazingly intense, stark and beautiful work, with beautiful dissonances and very sensitive text setting. For me this brief work was a discovery and the highlight of the evening.

The programme ended with Tomás de Victoria’s Magnificat primi toni, words spoken by the Virgin Mary in response to the Angel Gabriel’s Annunciation, from the Gospel of Saint Luke. I had not even heard of the names of these last two composers, and was very grateful for the discovery. The composer obviously felt drawn to the words of the Magnificat, since he wrote no less than 18 musical settings to it. Other than the one soprano voice that unfortunately stood out from the sound of the choir, the concert ended on a joyful note with this lovely performance.

In this Fall season, with Winter just around the corner, we can be thankful that we can draw inspiration from such life-affirming words and music.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Chronicles of a Life in Music

When I was a little boy, my father brought home one day a new recording of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. It was Arthur Rubinstein’s 1963 recording of the work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Erich Leinsdorf. That recording marked my love affair with the playing of Arthur Rubinstein, and the Boston Symphony has remained one of my favourite orchestras.

In 2011, Sony Music, which I guess must own the rights to RCA Victor catalogue of recordings, issued Arthur Rubinstein – The Complete Album Collection. The collection is a treasure trove for lovers of piano music, and fans of the artistry of Mr. Rubinstein. This past year, I have spent much time listening to the CD’s – 142 of them, to be precise. I made it a point to listen to the recordings chronologically, so as to really get a sense of Rubinstein’s artistic growth, the evolution of his views on certain works, and especially works that he recorded numerous times. My only complaint is that the recording of his legendary Moscow recital (Volume 62 of RCA’s Rubinstein Collection, issued in 2000; now also available on DVD) is missing in this collection.

Arthur Rubinstein made his first recording – Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60 – on March 9, 1928. In 1976, at the age of 89, and with severely compromised vision, the pianist made his last studio recordings. To listen to these recordings, as well as the ones in between, is to hear the fruits of a lifetime of music making by one of the great pianists and musicians of the 20th century.

Rubinstein’s recording career can perhaps be roughly separated into different phases. The earliest recordings were made for HMV in the United Kingdom. After his triumphant return to the United States in 1937, the pianist began his association with RCA Victor, a partnership that lasted until his retirement from the concert stage. With the outbreak of World War II, Rubinstein confined his activities mainly to North America. When the war ended, the pianist’s recording and concert career once again turned international and, although the bulk of his recordings were still done in North America, he also made some of his finest recordings in the United Kingdom, as well as in RCA’s Italiana Studios outside of Rome and (once) in Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv.

Arthur Rubinstein’s repertoire encompassed virtually the entire modern piano literature. In his memoirs included in the box of CDs, the pianist talks about performing, at various times in his life, works such as Bach’s C Minor Partita, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, Villa-Lobos’ Rudepoêma (dedicated to him), John Ireland’s Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, Busoni’s Turandots Frauengemach, Scriabin’s Vers la flame, just to name a few. His recorded repertoire, vast as it is, represents only a small portion of his actual repertoire. Like any artist, Rubinstein would only record works he felt strongly about, works that he felt he had “something to say”.

Rubinstein was not the first musician to have entered a recording studio. Unlike many artists of his generation, who either dreaded the experience of recording or did not take it seriously (thinking that records were just a fad that was not to last), Rubinstein enjoyed the process of making recordings, and took it extremely seriously. In an interview, the pianist indicated that the recording process is a “wonderful professor”. Max Wilcox, Rubinstein’s producer for many, if not most, of his RCA recordings, shared that Rubinstein would create an event out of the recording session, making the event great for everyone involved. Often, before listening to a playback, Rubinstein would say, “Now I am going to take my lesson”, and would listen to the playback “with completely objective ears.” Once, when recording a Chopin Nocturne, it took ten takes before “this great musician had achieved what he wanted.” Wilcox added, “(R)ather than being satisfied, he became constantly more inspired until he achieved what the music was saying to him that day.” The record producer was fascinated by how Rubinstein would transform himself “from a flamboyant public personality into a scholarly intellectual” when he recorded. Sometimes Rubinstein would work at a record speed, like the session when he recorded all the Chopin Waltzes in one evening. On the other hand, Rubinstein once did twelve takes of the first movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata, essentially rethinking the work as he progressed.

Maybe this is why so many of Rubinstein’s recordings stand the test of time. The great artist once confessed that in spite of his great enthusiasm for and the pride he took in making records, he could not listen to his recordings after a short time because his views of the work had changed. Perhaps so, but what can and does change is the perception of each listener towards the performance. I find that listening to some of these performances after many years, my views on some of them have changed. One hears things that one hadn’t noticed before. This, I believe, is the magic of the arts, be it books or movies or recordings, where nothing remains static.

What struck me the most when I listen to Rubinstein’s earliest recordings is how good the quality of the sound is. Rubinstein himself said that he was initially skeptical of the recording process, but became convinced after hearing the results of one initial recording. No, the recordings from the 1930’s of course did not have the crystal clarity of today’s recordings, but the engineers at the time captured the sound of Rubinstein’s playing remarkably well, considering how primitive the technology was compared with today’s digital technology. Even in these earliest recordings, we already hear all of the hallmarks of Rubinstein’s playing – a simple (not simplistic) and direct approach to the score, an acute sense of rhythm, and what we now call “the Rubinstein sound”, a sound where every note, no matter how soft, shoots out of the piano into our hearts and soul like a quiver of arrow. In Rubinstein’s playing, there had always been a generosity of sound, and a generosity of spirit.

There were many outstanding performances amongst these early Rubinstein recordings. For me, the first recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra certainly stood out. The performance throughout is both intensely musical and incredibly exciting. Rubinstein’s later recordings of the same work beautiful and brilliant as they may be do not compare with this first recording in ardor, passion, and in sheer excitement.

Other than recordings of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 and Chopin’s two piano concerti, most of Rubinstein’s early recordings feature solo works. There is much to be said about the pianist’s earliest complete recordings of Chopin’s Nocturnes and Mazurkas. In these performances, Rubinstein plays with a great deal more freedom than he would in his later recordings. This is true especially in the Mazurkas recordings, where Rubinstein would allow himself much more rubato than he later did. Even though Rubinstein was in his 40’s when these first recordings were made, there was a sense of freshness and youthfulness in these early performances. There is much to enjoy in Rubinstein’s first recordings of the Chopin Polonaises as well, although I personally prefer the more thoughtful interpretations of his 1964 set of the dances: for its greater poise, dignity, and certainly maturity, in his interpretation of the Polonaises in this later recording.

Also outstanding was Rubinstein’s only recording with his great friend, violinist Paul Kochanski, in Brahms’ Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108. The two friends and artists obviously inspired each other, complimenting each other in temperament and in musically, and the performance of this late Brahms work is beautiful in ensemble as well as musicality. It seems a shame that the two personal friends did not make more recordings together. Had Kochanski lived longer, the two artists would have formed a great musical partnership in the recording studio.

I really enjoyed Rubinstein’s only recording of Bach/Busoni’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564 (1932). This work had been in Rubinstein’s repertoire from his earliest days when pianists mostly played Bach in transcriptions. I only wish Rubinstein had re-recorded the work later on in his career. Perhaps by the time Rubinstein got around to re-recording certain works, transcriptions like the ones by Busoni, Tausig or Liszt had gotten out of fashion with pianists and listeners.  In any event, the 1932 recording of the massive Bach / Busoni transcription is a fine one, and certainly compares favourably with Horowitz’s famous life recording of the work in 1965.

After re-establishing his career in the United States after 1937, Rubinstein started to record many of the concerti in his repertoire with different American orchestras – Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, a blistering, high voltage performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Dallas Symphony, a second recording of Tchaikovsky’s first concerto in Minneapolis, de Falla’s Noches an los jardines de España and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in Saint Louis. Each of these aforementioned recordings has much to commend, although I do appreciate more his final series of Mozart Concerti recordings, stylistically as well as musically. What I noticed, especially with works that Rubinstein recorded often, is how the artist was able to retain the feeling of freshness and spontaneity in his performing of pieces that he played time and time again. There are two concerti recordings that warrant special mention – Rubinstein’s only recorded collaboration with Arturo Toscanini (Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3) and Sir Thomas Beecham (Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with a very interesting and unusual cadenza by Camille Saint-Saëns.) The cadenza explores chiefly the first theme of the first movement, and began in quite a sober fashion, quite in keeping with the dignity of the music. Towards the end, the piano writing became much more virtuosic, has more dash and flamboyance, somewhat akin to the piano writing in Saint-Saëns’ own piano concerti. I feel that the Busoni cadenza that Rubinstein played in his later recordings of the work is more stylistically fitting for the concerto.

Obviously, the works that Rubinstein recorded are works that meant a great deal to him, works that he felt he had new things to say every time he recorded them. These would be the same works that form the core of his concert repertoire, and many of these works would be re-recorded, sometimes many times, throughout Rubinstein’s long career. Other than many versions of major works of Chopin, there are, for instance, three recordings of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3, no less than four recordings of the same composer’s Appassionata, five recordings of Debussy’s Ondine, five recordings of the composer’s La plus que lente, and four recordings of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke.
Rubinstein recorded the four Ballades, Sonata No. 3, and 24 Preludes of Chopin only once, and there is much to admire in these recordings. With many of Chopin’s major works, there are several versions available in this set of CD’s – the Nocturnes, Impromptus, Waltzes, Mazurkas, Polonaises, and Scherzos. The final sets of Waltzes (1963) and Nocturnes (1965) show Rubinstein at his most suave and elegant.

I had always recognized the craftsmanship and genius in Chopin’s Fantasie in F Minor, Op. 49, but the music had never moved me until I heard Rubinstein’s 1962 recording of it. I love the mood Rubinstein achieves in the somber opening of the work. Rubinstein the pianist manages to lead listeners through the constantly shifting moods of the piece, but yet maintains an incredible sense of structural unity. But it is also the sound he conjures from the piano in this work that I respond to. There is a depth of feeling and a depth in the tone he produces on the piano that is quite beguiling.

The 1964 recording of the Polonaises combined the excitement of the 1934/1935 recording with thoughtfulness perhaps somewhat lacking in the earlier version. I was particularly moved by Rubinstein’s last recording of the Mazurkas, made in 1965. This final recording of the Mazurkas represents for me a distillation of the lifetime’s experience of playing these very elusive dances for the soul. I also adore Rubinstein’s ravishing account of the composer’s early Fantasy on Polish Airs, Op. 13, made in 1968. People would argue that this is “only” an early work by Chopin, but it is precisely this youthful quality, as well as the sheer beauty of the themes and the piano writing, that makes the work so appealing.

As much as Rubinstein was known for his playing of Chopin, I feel that his performances of the solo, concerto and chamber works of Johannes Brahms are even more distinguished and idiomatic than his interpretation of any other composers. Rubinstein lived his formative years in Berlin, where he was mentored by no other than Joseph Joachim, Brahms’ close friend and protégé. Through Joachim, Rubinstein was admitted into the very distinguished circle of friends and artists that had close association with the composer. More than that, I feel that Rubinstein just had a natural feeling for the music of Brahms. There is a sense of, for lack of a better word, “rightness” in the tempo, in pacing, and in the sound that make all his Brahms performances so satisfying.

It would be impossible to write an appreciation for each of the many fine recordings in this massive set of recordings; I do want to briefly mention a few of the records that particularly stood out in my mind. I was stunned by Rubinstein’s bracing account of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy – there is a demonic energy in the opening movement as well as in the final fugue, and heartbreaking poignancy in the slow movement. All of his accounts of Francis Poulenc’s Mouvements perpétuels, a work that figured prominently in the pianist’s discography as well as concert programme, are charming and effectual.

I have always found Rubinstein’s approach to the music of Ravel and Debussy somewhat different from that of many other pianists. Musical lines, both horizontal and vertical, are clearer. And the sound he uses is a little less ephemeral or, has a little more “meat” than that of, say, Walter Gieseking (whose playing, stunning when one first hears it, becomes more of the same after a while.) The pianist’s sole recording of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, a work he championed since it was written, is captivating. From his bracing account of the opening movement, conveying the bitterness of the dissonant chords, to the ethereal beauty of the final movement, the recorded performance of this 20th masterpiece holds the listener’s attention from the first note to the last. I must confess that Rubinstein’s recording of the work inspired me to learn the work myself.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rubinstein was known for his recordings of chamber music as much as for his solo and concerti recordings. Rubinstein was, from his youngest days, an enthusiastic chamber music player. From his student days in Berlin, where he would sit in on rehearsals of Joseph Joachim’s string quartet, Rubinstein had always loved the chamber music repertoire. One of his wishes was that at his deathbed, someone would play for him the slow movement of Schubert’s great String Quintet in C Major. Some of his early chamber music partners included a veritable who’s who of 20th music – Pablo Casals, Lionel Tertis, Eugene Ysaÿe, Albert Sammons, Paul Kochanski, Pierre Monteux (playing the viola), and Jacques Thibaud, to name just a few.

In 1934, Rubinstein recorded an incredibly beautiful rendition of César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major with Jascha Heifetz. Although there were some personal tensions between the two great musicians, they nevertheless made some great recordings together. With cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, the artists recorded great performances of trios by Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and, for me, the most intensely beautiful rendition of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor. Quite late in his life, the pianist recorded sonatas with violinist Henryk Szeryng, as well as trios with the same violinist and the elegant French cellist Pierre Fournier. An even most lasting partnership was formed with the Guarneri String Quartet, now sadly disbanded, but then a promising young quartet. With members of the Guarneri, Rubinstein performed and recorded piano quartets and quintets of Brahms, Schumann, Fauré, Dvorak, and Mozart.

Listening to Rubinstein’s chamber music recordings is truly a revelation, an education in ensemble playing. Regardless of whether he was playing with world famous soloists or a young string quartet, I am amazed at how Rubinstein was able to merge his piano sound into the sound of the ensemble. In his chamber music performances, one hears and senses the pianist’s humility in the face of great music, an absence of self, and utter joy in the sheer act of music making.

In the 1970’s, the final decade of Rubinstein’s performing career, most of his recordings appear to be dedicated to chamber works with Guarneri, as well as re-recordings of certain piano concerti – Brahms’ second concerto with Ormandy, a third and final set of Beethoven concerti with Barenboim, and Brahms’ first concerto with Zubin Mehta. His very final recording was dedicated to two works that obviously had special meaning for him – Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3 and Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12.  These final recordings are remarkable not only in their musical merits, but also in the fact that they were made by someone in his late eighties, with compromised eyesight.

I do not know if it was an improvement in the recording technology, or whether Rubinstein’s sound did change late in his life, but there is a sense of weight, of an even greater richness in tone, in the sound he conjured from the instrument in these later recordings. I am always moved by his performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Mehta, with its sense of despair and urgency in the 1st movement, and repose and reverence in the 2nd movement. It is perhaps fitting that Rubinstein should mark an end to his recording career with this particular work, one that he had fallen in love with and learned when he was in his early teens.

Other than the previously released recordings, this present set also includes three discs of previously unreleased recordings. Of the many performances from these CD’s, I would single out a beautiful rendition of Chopin’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45, strong performances of Schumann’s Novelette in F Major, Op. 21, No. 1 and Novelette in D Major, Op. 21, No. 5, and what is for me the most satisfying of his recordings of Schubert’s elusive and great Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960. Personally, the only puzzling recording is a strangely lukewarm performance of Schumann’s great Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17.

RCA Victor had previously released only one recording of Rubinstein’s legendary series of ten Carnegie Hall recitals in 1961. In the present set, Sony has given us three more discs of highlights of performances from those recitals, chosen by three of Rubinstein’s children. Of greatest interest is of course Rubinstein’s performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka. Written for and dedicated to Rubinstein by the composer, the pianist had made some changes to the score to make it more effective from a pianistic standpoint, which is why he had never made a studio recording of the work. Listening to this performance, given by the pianist at the peak of his artistic and technical powers, is truly something to behold. For me, just as remarkable is a breathtaking performance of Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5 that towers over the pianist’s already outstanding studio recording of the work, as well as a complete Chopin recital.

Listening to these recordings, I am once again convinced that Arthur Rubinstein was and is one of the truly remarkable artists of the 20th century.

Listening to Rubinstein’s playing, I was reminded of John Rubinstein’s (the artist’s youngest son) moving words that, for “Arthur Rubinstein, music was more important than just about anything else. And it wasn’t the business of music, not the planning and executing of his pianistic career; it was music itself, the metaphysical, the sublime, rousing, passionate, tragic, comic, complex, non-verbal thing it is. It was music that coursed through my father’s veins, that created pictures in his mind, that inspired him and kept him alive for almost 96 years.” Indeed, Arthur Rubinstein approached music with complete devotion, complete humility and, always, with a sense of discovery and wonder.

Ever since my first encounter with the playing of Arthur Rubinstein, the pianist’s music making, and his dedication and approach to music, have been a constant source of inspiration to me. Indeed, listening to these recordings, from the earliest to last ones, one is truly witnessing a musical journey of a lifetime, one of dedication to the musical art, and one that reflects a true joy in the sheer act of the recreation of great art. In this age, where music is often treated as a mere career, or a route to further one’s own ambition, we could all learn from the life and art of Arthur Rubinstein.

When Arthur Rubinstein plays - I still find it difficult to think of him in the past tense - he isn’t a pianist, or even a musician. He is music.

I will continue to enjoy these wonderful recordings in the years to come, and will continue to listen to them with awe, with great joy, and with gratitude for the life of this remarkable artist. I will always miss him.