Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Chopin Ballade No. 1 - Horowitz vs. Rubinstein

I grew up listening to recordings of Rubinstein playing the Chopin Nocturnes. I distinctly remember lying on the top edge of the couch when I was 9 years old, listening to the vinyl LPs over and over again. I read the liner notes over and over and of course it convinced me that the definitive Chopin pianist was Rubinstein. Here is an excerpt from the liner notes (as an adult I bought the CD of this recording and they kept the same notes):

There is a romantic image connected with the piano music of Chopin, and especially with his nocturnes. A candlelit, elegant salon filled with ladies of all ages, fashionably dressed. Many are swooning, or about to. At the piano: Chopin, his delicate features lit by some inner vision as his lean, aesthetic fingers draw from the keys the most ephemeral tracery, while George Sand stands nearby puffing on a cigar.

The scene may be somewhat fanciful and overdrawn, but it is part of the Chopin legend, and it has rubbed off on a number of pianists since the composer's time who have sought to rekindle his image in the concert hall. There is a great temptation to turn this wonderful music into a kind of romantic mush, to linger languidly over every turn of phrase until the music falls apart into a series of fleeting wisps of pink clouds.

Artur Rubinstein was one of the great figures in putting that portion of the legend to rest. His playing of Chopin was a revelation. Most of all it revealed the strength, the richness of imagination, the sheer genius that lies embedded in the music itself. He gave Chopin stature, made him not merely the beloved panderer to the romantic tastes of the salon but a composer whose every measure was full of daring and powerful musical thrust.

When Rubinstein played a Chopin nocturne, he played it primarily as a piece of music, a logical and powerful progression of ideas shaped into a large and controlled musical design. Yet, the uniqueness of his playing is that it was never cold, never drained of the human essence that is embedded in this music. Under his magical fingers, Chopin speaks to the mind, but also to the heart.

Why does this happen? Part of the explanation may be that Rubinstein was a Pole, like Chopin whatever it is in a particular country that gets into one's artistic bloodstream is a shared commodity between the two spirits. But that kind of explanation is often pat and without meaning, and it is especially so here. For one thing, Chopin's father was of purely French stock. And for another, Rubinstein was also a phenomenal exponent of the music of Spanish composers, whose backgrounds have nothing whatever to do with us.

No, the answer lies in the realm of the unexplainable, in the fact that Rubinstein was a musician with a sense of color, of logic, of communication, of wit and fantasy, and the Chopin a century ago was also that kind of musician. Somehow, for reasons having to do with a chemistry not to be analyzed in any existing laboratory, their spirits blended in a perfect unity.

(OK, good thing for touch typing, but the laptop sure isn't my natural keyboard!!)

At the time, I took it upon myself to learn the 2nd Nocturne in E flat. It was the most difficult piece that I had ever attempted in my young life. I picked it (or my parents did) because it was called the easy nocturne, not so much that I liked the piece. I learned to hate it, and to this day, I cringe when I hear it. At that point I vowed only to learn pieces that I actually liked, good thing it actually includes most of the piano repertoire.

When I was growing up, my parents felt that Horowitz was somehow bad in that he charged an enormous sum for his performances (something like $50 in those days). How could anyone think so highly of himself that he should charge that much?

Now when I listen to the Ballade No. 1 (my nemesis), with Horowitz and Rubinstein back to back, I have to say that Horowitz adds a polish, clarity and incredibly speed that Rubinstein does not exhibit. Rubinstein is certainly good, even great, but Horowitz is simply fantastic. Compared to Horowitz, Rubinstein's performance is almost pedantic, closely following tempo changes and dynamic markings, but without fire. It must have been one of Horowitz's favorite pieces, because I have at least 3 different recordings of him playing it. Of course, if I can even come close to playing it like the Rubinstein version, I would be happy!

(whey, a draft started from 6/20 finally finished)


Anonymous said...

This site may be long defunct and I'm writing into a cyber-void but I put in "Horowitz vs. Rubinstein" on google and this came up. I have just been listening to both of them do the Op. 9 2nd and 3rd nocturnes by Chopin and I think Horowitz is the superior pianist. There's a lightness of touch and greater dynamic range that does make Rubinstein seem a tad pedantic as you say.

Angela said...

Not nearly defunct by a long shot! Since posting this exactly seven years ago, I have never picked out a Rubinstein CD of Chopin since.