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Exploring Music: The Most Difficult/Homage to Arthur Rubinstein

The MHS Review 392 Vol. 11 No. 14 1987

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David M. Greene


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Arthur (ne Artur) Rubinstein was born in Lodz (pronounced Wudge) a hundred years ago as of January 28 last, and came closer to seeing his centenary than, according to the actuarial tables, most of us will. Within the past few days (I am writing this in mid­July) there has been a good bit of belated hoopla about him, culminating last night in a fascinating TV profile presented by his son John. One nationally famous TV newsman went so far as to surmise that Rubinstein was the greatest pianist of the 20th century, which may be stretching things a bit. (Horowitz? Busoni? Liberace?) .. But I'd guess that few human beings, pianists or no, have lived life as richly and fully as Rubinstein did.

He would have been the first to tell you that he was so busy living and experienc­ing during his first 50 years that he had no time (or inclination) to be a truly great pianist. As a teenager he decided that he had had enough study, though he subse­quently had some lessons with Paderewski, who, for all his popularity, was hardly what he needed. Rubinstein was intelligent and clever and quickly learned how to cover up errors and compensate for dif­ficulties he was unequipped to deal with. He was magnetic and a show-off and, as he candidly admitted, he thereby got away with murder.

When, in 1932, at the age of 45, he decided to marry, rear a family, and put his playboy ways behind him, he sudden­ly began to think about the kind of name he would leave his heirs. After five years of intensive practice, during which he iron­ed out his shortcomings and developed a style of his own, he emerged and drew the huzzas of even his most adverse critics. The rest is, of course, history.

In his callow years, during which Cen­tral European, British, and American reviewers were inclined to savage him, he found his audience when he visited Spain in 1916, and long afterwards he concen­trated his concertizing there and in Latin America. Spanish music was then in its brief modern Golden Age, and Latin­-American composers were just finding their voices. Rubinstein was a quick study and a facile reader and then identified with the avant-garde. As a result, many Hispanic composers wrote works for him, as this record testifies.

Rubinstein supplies considerable detail about all this in his breezily readable autobiographies, My Young Years and My Many Years. For exarnple: The major com­position on the record is Heitor Villa­lobos' Rudepoama. The pianist first met the composer in a Rio movie theater where the latter was playing for a silent film. Ask­ed to play some of his own music, Villa­Lobos made some snotty remarks about pianists, then turned up in Rubinstein's hotel bedroom a few mornings later with an orchestra so as to comply. They became friends, and Rubinstein paved the way for the Brazilian to study in Paris. There the latter, as was his style, one morning again burst into the pianist's quarters bringing the manuscript of Rudepoama inscribed with a fulsome dedication which said in ef­fect that this "Savage Poem" was an aural photograph of Rubinstein's personality.

Rubinstein, who compares the piece to Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps, suspects that it is more likely an evocation of the native music of the Amazon forests. Invited by Nelson Rockefeller in 1940 to play at the Museum of Modem Art at the opening of an exhibition by the Brazilian painter Candido Portinari, Rubinstein chose this work and apparently left his audience gasp­ing. It is, by the way, said to be perhaps the most difficult of all piano pieces.

Having made a hit with Manuel de Falla 's "Ritual Fire Dance," transcribed from the ballet El amor brujo, Rubinstein commis­sioned another work from the Spaniard. That turned out to be the Fantasia betica, the other big work on the record. He had his doubts about this work from the start, and it flopped in London and Paris. But, as Gilbert Chase has observed, that was because it was not what audiences ex­pected from Falla in those years.

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