Chopin: Piano concertos/Rubinstein SACD

Review by: Jed Distler

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 8

No timbral difference distinguishes RCA’s SACD of Arthur Rubinstein’s 1961 Chopin E minor concerto recording from the label’s most recent transfer in its complete Rubinstein Edition. Although 5.1 surround-sound cannot be applied to the original two-track master, I do notice a little less tape hiss and a warmer, mellower equalization this time around. This easily is the finest of Rubinstein’s three recorded versions (indeed, one of his best recordings of anything), where panache and poetry fuse to magical, impeccably timed effect. Obviously Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s beautifully balanced and shapely accompaniment inspires the soloist.

The F minor concerto performance is not quite on the same level, mainly because Rubinstein’s straightforward brio often yields perfunctory, even glib returns. For instance, there’s more anguish and drama in the slow movement’s octave outbursts than Rubinstein’s hard-nosed reading suggests, while opportunities for poetic nuance in the outer movements also go by unnoticed. For this reason I much prefer the heartfelt inflections and communicative immediacy distinguishing the pianist’s live performance under Giulini issued on BBC Legends. Sonically speaking, the dry ambience and close-up detail gains noticeable tonal dimension and heft when experienced in a surround-sound environment, along with a truer sense of Rubinstein’s projection within the orchestral image.

In addition, Alfred Wallenstein uncovers important orchestral detail many conductors ignore, such as the motives in the finale that pass back and forth between the solo wind players. Wallenstein also complies with two misguided textual emendations that Rubinstein always asked for–a foreshortened final tutti at the first movement’s end, and a “normal” bowing of the violins’ percussive ponticello (back of the bow) effect in the finale’s mazurka episode. Get this reissue if your main interest in these performances is audiophile in nature. Otherwise, the earlier Rubinstein Edition release is cheaper, and tosses in the pianist’s 1962 Trois Nouvelles Etudes for filler.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Argerich (EMI)

FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN - Piano Concerto No. 1 in E major Op. 11; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21

  • RCA - 67902-2
  • SACD

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