Brahms Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor Ballades, opus 10

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
DECCA Eloquence 466 724-2

   reviewed by Neville Cohn 

It’s a fascinating exercise, after listening to the polonaises recorded by Rubinstein in middle age, to consider the last concerto performance he ever recorded, his first ever for the DECCA label – and the only one. Special permission had to be sought from RCA Victor, to whom Rubinstein had been contracted for many years. RCA permitted the recording to go ahead on learning that all royalties from the DECCA disc would go to a benevolent fund for retired musicians of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with whom Rubinstein recorded Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 2.

This was Rubinstein’s concerto recording swansong and it says much for physical resilience that he not only steers a safe way through this musical minefield but invests the playing with a nobility – the distillation of a lifetime’s musical thought and endeavour – that makes for compelling listening. The CD booklet points out that one of the trickier passages needed to be re-recorded by the old man and then spliced into the main tape. It is superior musical surgery; no scar is evident. While understandably playing at a more deliberate pace than would have been the case had Rubinstein been fifty or even fifteen years younger, the powers of expression, the ability to summon up his trademark massive tone where required and to caress the ear in quieter moments, is astonishing testimony to Rubinstein’s durability as both man and musician. Zubin Mehta galvanises the IPO which provides a sensationally fine accompaniment for the old magician. There’s a Brahms bonus: the Ballades, opus 10 presented with all the insight we have come to expect of Julius Katchen.

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