Thursday, September 17, 2020

Revisiting a special Brahms First PIano Concerto

Shortly before the end of his long performing career, Arthur Rubinstein made a final recording of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.  Mr. Rubinstein had been playing the concerto since he was around twelve years old. According to My Young Years, the first volume of the pianist’s memoirs, his teacher laughed when he expressed the wish to learn this work, but then young Rubinstein brought it to the subsequent lesson and played it to his teacher’s amazed satisfaction. 


The recording also represents Mr. Rubinstein’s only appearance on London-Decca. Special arrangements had to be made at the time to temporarily release the pianist from his contractual obligations to RCA Victor. 


My first live performance of this concerto was with Claudio Arrau, and it has remained one of my favourite symphonic works. I somehow felt the need to hear that recording again this morning, First off, if you are looking for a note-perfect, silken smooth performance of this concerto, this is not for you. Mr. Rubinstein was close to 90 when he played this performance, and hitting all the correct notes was certainly not his primary goal.


I found this performance incredibly moving, and felt that it represents a wonderful bookend to Mr. Rubinstein’s artistic and musical life. For him, to play this concerto with Mehta, an old friend, and this “orchestra of exiles” from the nation of Israel, whom he loved, made for very special music making. 


Having played chamber music all his life, Mr. Rubinstein does not make the superhuman demands of this enormous work a showcase for himself, but takes an almost chamber music like approach to make the piano’s musical line an organic component of the giant orchestral fabric. As well, there is a real give and take, a real feeling of dialogue between him and Mehta. Mr. Rubinstein had said that it was always a feast to play with Mehta, as it was with George Szell before that. 


In the slow movement, Mr. Rubinstein plays the music in a reflective manner, and imbues the music with an inner glow, while in the outer movements, the sound evokes a feeling of ruggedness. In addition, the relatively modern recording technology (or perhaps it was the London engineers) captures the pianist’s piano sonorities, much more so than in his earlier RCA recordings. His earlier recording with Fritz Reiner, long considered a classic, seems more “light-weight” compared with this Israel recording, which really has a sense of weight in the sound.  


Mr. Rubinstein’s performance with Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic evoke in my mind the image of magnificent granite. To be sure, the musicians in this recording bring out the epic quality of Brahms’ great concerto.


With the state our world is in – challenges and stress during this pandemic, political division in the United States, and the hopelessness of the fight for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong - hearing this deeply moving performance was for me a cathartic experience, as well as one that gave me hope during this bleak time.


I am still young enough to remember that every Rubinstein recording was a special occasion, something to celebrate. The music world has changed much since those innocent days. At least we have this unforgettable artistic memento by the great Arthur Rubinstein, someone who to this day represents for me what it really is to be a musician.