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Arthur Rubinstein: The Supreme Chopin Poet

Artur Rubinstein's Chopin recordings had a fresh sound, as if he were discovering the music for the first time.
Wikimedia Commons
Artur Rubinstein's Chopin recordings had a fresh sound, as if he were discovering the music for the first time.

As a pianist, Frederic Chopin possessed talents beyond emulation. He had an impact on other musicians entirely out of proportion to the number of concerts he gave — only 30 public performances in 30 years. No one before or since has contributed as many significant works to the piano's repertoire, or come closer to capturing the instrument's soul.

The four ballades Chopin wrote between 1831 and 1842 are his most substantial single-movement pieces, and among his finest creations. In each of them, Chopin fashions an episodic narrative from a pair of thematic ideas that are spun out and varied in an unbroken flow — so that while the mood is constantly changing, the line of action is continuous.

The A-flat major ballade, heard here, is almost wholly lyrical, though Chopin creates a satisfying inner tension through its remarkably complex harmonic scheme.

Rubinstein The Chopin Poet

You have to have poetry in your soul to be able to play this music right. And I can't think of a pianist who had more of that poetry in his soul than Artur Rubinstein.

His recordings of Chopin can be recommended without hesitation for their warmth, lyricism and expressive point. Never overwrought, the music emerges with spontaneity and freshness.

Rubinstein's fiery renditions of the ballades and scherzos combine drama and poetry in mesmerizing fashion. He had these pieces in his repertoire for many decades by the time he made these recordings, and yet they sound so fresh, so new, so compelling. It's really a miracle, and one of the most wonderful aspects of his discography.

To hear last week's feature, click here.

For a full archive of NPR's Classical 50, click here.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ted Libbey
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