Arthur Rubinstein: “Don’t Tell, But I’d Play the Piano for Nothing”

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By Bradley Bambarger <2018>

Arthur Rubinstein was always the life of the party. Born in 1887, the classical pianist was raised in Lodz, Poland, becoming an American citizen in middle age after years spent roaming around the cultural capitals of Berlin, Paris and London. He was a natural storyteller in multiple languages and a tireless social animal, someone who lived to perform. He was an elegant virtuoso, his mature playing a spontaneous balance of color, lyricism and verve, drawing a rich, warm tone from his instrument. Rubinstein’s appetite for the best things in life — books, paintings, travel, food, wine, good company — was passionate, and infectious.

Record producer Max Wilcox recalled that in 1963, when Rubinstein was 76, they were scheduled to record Chopin’s waltzes over three days in a Rome studio. But the pianist started playing at 6:45 the first evening and by 11:15, all 14 waltzes were taped to satisfaction. “We were all limp — but not Rubinstein,” the producer said, adding that the pianist was then in the mood to celebrate. “The party lasted until 2:30 a.m.”

Rubinstein was a prodigy by the time he could walk, with perfect pitch and a “photographic memory.” At age 10, he was sent from Warsaw to Berlin for studies under the supervision of the great violinist-conductor Joseph Joachim, friend and collaborator to Brahms. Joachim entrusted the boy to Karl Heinrich Barth as his piano teacher; this made Rubinstein part of the grandest lineage — Barth had been instructed by Franz Liszt, who had been taught by Carl Czerny, who had been a pupil of Beethoven himself. Rubinstein made his debut with the great Berlin Philharmonic at age 13. A few years later, the precocious teenager moved to Paris, where he interacted with the cream of cultural society — from composer luminary Maurice Ravel to art superstar Pablo Picasso.

Not everything went Rubinstein’s way, with his first tour of the U.S. not achieving the success he expected. He took a sabbatical from a glittering, whirlwind life in the early 1930s to study repertoire and hone his technique. Still, he continued to emphasize spontaneity, 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.”

To millions of record buyers, radio listeners and concertgoers around the world, Rubinstein was the modern embodiment of Chopin, interpreting the Polish composer’s music with new muscle. Although he recorded most of Chopin’s major works multiple times across a half-century, Rubinstein commanded a vast repertoire beyond that — from Mozart and Schubert to Brahms and Franck, from Debussy and Falla to Rachmaninoff and Szymanowski. Unlike many virtuosos, Rubinstein didn’t only star in solo concerts and concertos with orchestras; he loved to play chamber music, too, a way of socializing in intimate groups through music. New York Times critic Harold Schonberg wrote: “No pianist has put everything together the way Rubinstein has. Others may be superior in specific things, but Rubinstein is the complete pianist.”

Proud of his heritage, Rubinstein often put his art to the service of Jewish and Polish causes, including at the inauguration of the United Nations after World War II and later in Israel. He finally retired from the stage in 1976 — having begun playing in public in 1894. He died in his sleep at age 95. Reflecting on how much he loved life as a musician, Rubinstein once remarked (referencing his powerful booking agent): “Don’t tell Sol Hurok, but I’d play the piano for nothing, I enjoy it so much.”

Choice Rubinstein on Record

Chopin: Nocturnes (1965); Music of Spain: Falla, Granados, Albéniz, Mompou (1947–55); Music of France: Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Fauré, Chabrier (1945–61); Brahms: Violin Sonatas, with Henryk Szeryng (1960); Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto №2, etc., with Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner (1950–56).

(Originally published in the December 2018 issue of In Tune magazine.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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