A sound musical investment

Music: Complete collection of the works of pianist Arthur Rubinstein is expensive, but fans will find its quality well worth the price.

Fine Arts

July 27, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

I've got good news, bad news, good news and, then, even more good news.

The first news is that the complete recorded legacy of Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982), perhaps this century's most beloved pianist, will be reissued in October in its entirety as the "Rubinstein Collection." It's an unprecedented 94-CD compilation of all 706 recordings of 347 compositions made by the pianist between 1928 and 1976.

The bad news is that this deluxe edition from BMG Classics, which contains many performances aficionados may already possess in various LP and CD incarnations, comes with a price tag of about $1,500.

But here's the second piece of good news: It's a sound investment.

That's meant quite literally. If the remastered sound on the two-CD sampler recently mailed to critics is any indication, Rubinstein hasn't sounded this good since he was around to play in the flesh.

Past reissues removed the clicks, ticks and pops, which afflict early recordings, at the cost of making Rubinstein's performances sound less vibrant.

These new remasterings, however, remove the majority of such impediments to listening, while at the same time almost miraculously allowing for reproduction as faithful as, and sometimes more faithful than, the original recordings.

A few examples:

Rubinstein's unequaled 1941 recording of Albeniz's fantastically difficult "Navarra," steely and compressed-sounding on the original 78s as well as on subsequent reissues, now sounds fuller and more deeply textured, revealing more of the pianist's panache and his distinctive way of coloring phrases.

Rubinstein's 1946 recording of Chopin's Barcarolle, which suffered from a lack of warmth and clarity on its CD incarnation in 1990, now sounds as magically nuanced and magisterially commanding as I remember it on the LP I bought 40 years ago.

A CD reissue in 1989 made Rubinstein's 1961 performance of Mozart's Concerto No. 21 in C Major sound distant. The new mastering permits us to hear it as if we're in the room with the pianist and orchestra.

Even Rubinstein's recordings from the 1970s sound better. His third and final recording of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, for example, recorded in 1975 with the London Philharmonic and the young Daniel Barenboim conducting, shows improved definition of both piano and orchestra.

The best news of all, however, is that this collection will make available more than 200 recordings never before released on CD. The most important are Rubinstein's monaural recordings from the late 1940s and early 1950s. These include complete sets of Chopin's nocturnes, mazurkas, scherzos and polonaises, which have been out of print for more than 40 years and which many aficionados consider superior to the pianist's earlier and later versions from the 1930s and 1960s.

Which Rubinstein performances are best, however, has always been matter of contention. It's difficult, if not impossible, to think of any other musician who ever played so well for so long. He made his formal debut in 1900 at a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic that featured the 13-year-old pianist in concertos by Mozart and Saint-Saens; his American debut came six years later at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Brahms' Concerto No. 1.

When the onset of blindness forced his reluctant retirement in 1976, he had been delighting audiences everywhere for more than three-quarters of this century.

This much-anticipated edition -- which will be accompanied by a hard-bound, 380-page book containing previously unpublished photos and essays by noted scholars and musicians -- will afford some fascinating comparisons between competing versions. We will be able to choose between five performances of Chopin's Barcarolle, four of Beethoven's Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 (including three different sets of all five concertos), four of Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata, three of Brahms' Concerto No. 1, four of the Concerto No. 2, four of the Grieg Concerto, and so on.

The Rubinstein Collection contains more than 106 hours of music, as well as several recorded interviews with the pianist. The task of so much listening may begin in the 20th century (when the set appears in stores on Oct. 12), but it should occupy us well into the 21st.

It's possible, therefore, that Rubinstein will be remembered not only as the most beloved pianist of this century, but also of the one about to begin.

Pub Date: 7/27/99

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