Back in 1999, the $1,600, 94-CD box of pianist Arthur Rubinstein’s complete recordings nearly bankrupted BMG’s classical division. BMG had absorbed the RCA Red Seal catalogue and produced big box sets of Heifetz and Toscanini recordings, but the Rubinstein set, with its fussy digipacks and forbidding price, didn’t sell well. Since BMG was absorbed by Sony, the classical division discovered that its elderly music-buyers enjoy being reminded of the LPs they collected in younger years, and a number of Original Jackets releases have fed that phenomenon. Glenn Gould and Vladimir Horowitz got the treatment, each with a set of about 80 CDs. Last year’s Heifetz set upped the limit to 103 discs.
Once again, it’s Rubinstein’s turn, and the 144-disc here’s-everything collection is a completist’s dream. The CDs are housed in miniature cardboard replicas of the original LP jackets, some of which, explains producer Robert Russ, were hunted down on places like eBay in order to reproduce the artwork. Each disc also reproduces the original LPs content, so the majority of the CDs are comparatively brief. Which, argues Russ, isn’t a bad way to listen to this music, and I agree. I’ve gotten so accustomed to hearing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 immediately followed by No. 4 that I’m beginning to think of them as a single piece.
Not only will you find those pieces in this collection each to a disc, you’ll find them three times over. Rubinstein recorded three cycles of Beethoven concertos over a relatively (for him) short space of time: in 1956, the mid ’60s and 1975, the final round with pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim leading the London Philharmonic.
By this time, the 88-year-old pianist’s powers were waning, inviting what usually are termed “thoughtful” performances. For a more muscular but still-poetic approach, the 1956 versions with Josef Krips conducting the former NBC Symphony are superb, flawed only in the age of the recordings. With Erich Leinsdorf and the BSO a decade later, the recorded sound has improved, and the pianist’s technique remains flawless—and the orchestra and conductor are among the pianist’s best-ever accompanists.
To really appreciate how Rubinstein’s Beethoven evolved, start with his earliest “Appassionata,” waxed for HMV in 1945. It’s big and rambunctious, with a hell-bent-for-leather finale unlike his two later recordings—although it may have been posterity caution that tempered the later work, a caution he tosses away in his final “Appassionata,” a performance included in both audio and video formats as part of the “Benefit Recital for Israel” recital at Ambassador College in Pasadena in 1975.
Rubinstein’s core repertory started with a few Mozart concertos and entered the 20th century with Rachmaninoff. He championed short solo works by Albeniz, Villa Lobos and Debussy, and made three recordings of Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.” He also recorded his friend Karol Szymanowski’s Symphonie Concertante, Op. 60, better known (when it’s known at all) as that composer’s Symphony No. 4.
At the heart of this set, however, are matchless interpretations of Chopin and Brahms. Rubinstein recorded his Chopin repertory twice, or very nearly. Late ’20s and early ’30s versions of the concertos, nocturnes, mazurkas, waltzes and more tend to be like captured concerts, warts and all. When visiting them again in the age of stereo, the pianist laid down more archival versions, which remain the standards for many. According to classical-tradition ethnic profiling, as a performer you’re taken to be a specialist in the music of fellow countrymen, and thus has Rubinstein been assigned status as a Chopin interpreter. Which is fine as far as it goes, but doesn’t explain the pianist’s similar expertise with Brahms. Here you find both concertos recorded a few times apiece, and if he recorded only the last of that composer’s piano sonatas, he gives us both cello sonatas with Piatigorsky, the violin sonatas with Szeryng and most of the other piano-included chamber works with the Guarneri Quartet. And plenty of other shorter solo piano works.
The large pink box fits awkwardly on a shelf. You’ll need the photo-filled hardcover book at hand to make sense of the CDs, the jackets of which rarely contain track-by-track details. And the overall massiveness of the set means there’s plenty of excess. Three versions apiece of the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 and the Saint-Saëns No. 2 are hardly necessary. But there are unexpected treasures here, too. Two CDs collect studio recordings that never were issued; three more present material culled from Rubinstein’s ten Carnegie Hall recitals in 1961, which, in addition to the one commercial release he approved, give a rare glimpse of the artist in concert, something he was otherwise reluctant to share. Charlie Parker aside, not every utterance by every musical genius is worth revisiting. I put Rubinstein in that rarefied realm.