“A Steinway is a Steinway and there is nothing like it in the world.”
One of the 20th century’s two most iconic classical pianists, Arthur Rubinstein (1887–1982) was a very different man and musician than Vladimir Horowitz, his peer and fellow household name. Rather than a neurotic recluse, Rubinstein was a polyglot raconteur and indefatigable bon vivant who lived to perform; instead of a fire-breathing dynamo, Rubinstein was an elegant virtuoso, his mature playing a spontaneous balance of color, lyricism and verve, with a rich, warm tone; not only a recitalist and concerto soloist, Rubinstein was also an enthusiastic player of chamber music, collaborating over his long career with Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, Henryk Szeryng, Emanuel Feuermann, Pierre Fournier and the Guarneri Quartet, among others. Of course, Rubinstein — who was born in Lódz, Poland — became the 20th-century embodiment of Chopin’s music, interpreting the Polish composer’s poetry with sinew as well as sighs. Although he recorded most of Chopin’s major works multiple times from the era of early electrical recording to the age of hi-fidelity stereo, Rubinstein commanded a vast repertoire beyond that — from Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns and Brahms to Albéniz, Falla, Granados, Fauré, Franck, Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninoff, plus select pieces by Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Villa-Lobos, Prokofiev, Poulenc and Bach-Busoni. His appetite for music — as with cigars, books, paintings, travel, food, wine, women – remained prodigious throughout his life.
Over his eight-decade career before the public, Rubinstein played thousands of concerts across Europe and the U.S. to South America, Asia, Australia, North Africa and Russia. Initially for HMV/EMI and then over a thirty-six-year association with RCA, he made a huge quantity of recordings from 1928 to 1978, the quality often improving rather than diminishing with the years. On the occasion of Rubinstein’s 75th birthday, New York Times critic Harold Schonberg wrote: “Horowitz may have a more glittering technique, Rudolf Serkin may have a better way with German music, Rosalyn Tureck more of an affinity for Bach, Sviatoslav Richter for Prokofiev and Scriabin, and Claudio Arrau may have a bigger repertory. But no pianist has put everything together the way Rubinstein has. Others may be superior in specific things, but Rubinstein is the complete pianist.” He was a prodigy by the time he could walk, with perfect pitch and a photographic memory; at age ten, he was sent from Warsaw to Berlin to study under the supervision of the great violinist-conductor Joseph Joachim, friend and collaborator to Brahms (establishing a connection to that composer’s oeuvre that the pianist cultivated throughout his life). Joachim trusted Karl Heinrich Barth as Rubinstein’s piano teacher; that made him part of the grandest lineage — Barth had been instructed by Liszt, who had been taught by Czerny, who had been a pupil of Beethoven. Rubinstein made his Berlin Philharmonic debut at age thirteen. A few years later, the precocious teenager moved to Paris, where he interacted with the cream of cultural society — from Ravel to Ysaÿe to Picasso.
Rubinstein also enjoyed performing and socializing in London and fell in love with Spain and its music, although the pianist’s initial tour of the U.S. in the early 1900s was not the success he expected. Never a young man keen on practicing, he took a sabbatical from a glittering, whirlwind life in the early 1930s to study repertoire and hone his technique. Still, he continued to see over-practicing as a bane, saying: “At every concert, I leave a lot to the moment. I must have the unexpected, the unforeseen. I want to risk, to dare. I want to be surprised by what comes out. I want to enjoy it more than the audience. That way the music can bloom anew. It’s like making love. The act is always the same, but each time it’s different.” His new-era recital at Carnegie Hall in 1937 augured an ever-deepening relationship with American audiences. Rubinstein then moved to Los Angeles, where he did some work in Hollywood and played chamber music with his fellow European émigrés. He became a U.S. citizen in 1946 and worked extensively with American and English orchestras. As early as the start of World War I, Rubinstein would never play in Germany again. He was proud of his heritage, often putting his art to the service of Jewish and Polish causes — including at the inauguration of the United Nations in 1945 and later in Israel. Rubinstein received awards and honors the world over, finally retiring in 1976. He had published his first memoir, My Young Years, in 1973; he followed that with My Many Years in 1980. He settled in Geneva, Switzerland, where he died in his sleep at age 95. His longtime RCA producer, Max Wilcox, recalled that in 1963, when the pianist was 76, they were scheduled to record Chopin’s waltzes over three days in a Rome studio. But Rubinstein started playing at 6:45 p.m. the first evening and by 11:15 p.m., all 14 waltzes were taped to satisfaction. “We were all limp — but not Rubinstein,” the producer said. “The party on the Via Venuto lasted until 2:30 a.m.” After all, Rubinstein once said, referencing his powerful agent: “Don’t tell [Sol] Hurok, but I’d play the piano for nothing, I enjoy it so much.” —Bradley Bambarger