When my step-father suggested to me to try Chopin's Nocturnes he insisted that I get this recording of it, saying nothing has come close since. That is until they were remastered! After testing his theory and exploring other performances, this is the one I come back to and have to agree with his initial judgement.
Rubenstein coaxes the most exquisite tones and emotions from his piano and makes the music on offer here soar like you never knew it was quite possible to. The recordings are clear and crackle free and the remastering has been done with respect and a light touch, rather than some of the over compressed recordings I have on my shelves.
This is beautiful music played by a master and it is one to sit back and savour at regular intervals. Truly the recording of Chopin's Nocturnes to buy and simply sublime.
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This pair of discs contains the 19 nocturnes recorded by Rubinstein between 1965-7. This is slightly fewer than the complete 21 recorded by Ashkenazy or Pires for example and the two missing nocturnes may be regretted by some collectors.
Rubinstein's recordings of Chopin, made over a lifetime and re-visited more than once, were important landmark recordings for many listeners and these became, and remain, definitive recordings for a lot of people. They have a very distinctive style and sound which makes them instantly recognisable but not beyond compare. The very distinctive nature of the recordings underlines the fact that no-one else played them that way then or that way today. Unless it is accepted that it is possible that any one artist can have an absolute monopoly over an interpretation or an interpretive approach (a very questionable view), then it must be accepted that there must be other equally valid ways of interpreting any music, which in the hands of an equally fine musician must inevitably be an equally fine, if different, listening experience.
These particular recordings of the nocturnes are notable for their emotional restraint. Rubinstein plays it as it is, or rather as he sees it as it is. Some have described his playing as like presenting the notes like small gems or jewels for us to admire and enjoy. Others have described his playing as aristocratic and others as autocratic. All of these descriptions have some truth about them. Rubinstein also used his own piano wherever he went. This was because it had been specially prepared to suit his particular way of playing. It had an especially light action requiring a very light touch. This would be ideal for the smaller, more intimate venues and not so suitable for larger halls where more projection is clearly required.
This simple instrumental consideration brings about one of the differences between Rubinstein and Ashkenazy for example. Rubinstein's approach is more intimate, more private, more identifiable with a salon environment. Ashkenazy's approach is less intimate, more public, bigger boned and more identifiable with a larger hall environment. Pires offers a gentler touch but also noticeably warmer than either in her survey. She is not as large scaled, even as masculine as Ashkenazy, but is more intimate, more feminine and more emotionally engaging than Rubinstein. All three of these pianists, and many others of course, are considered very fine on the world stage and I would suggest that they all have a place and something equally valuable to add to our understanding of Chopin.
Finally one must consider the actual sound quality of the recording. The one that is given to Rubinstein is closely miked within rather a dry acoustic. This robs the piano of the tonal depth that more recent recordings have. This, over the years, has become identified as part of the Rubinstein sound. This is not strictly true of course. What we are hearing is Rubinstein's sound through the medium of the recording studio, the engineer's choice of acoustics and balance plus technical equipment. In many ways this seems to fit in with Rubinstein's more intimate approach but it is not his sound as we would hear it in a 'live' situation today.
This set of nocturnes, with all that has been described above, remains a benchmark set of performances given by a unique musician with his own unique way of expressing his view of Chopin. It is not cluttered with extra emotion or exaggeration as regards tempo or dynamics and is greatly to be preferred to more indulgent performances. It requires compromises and understanding to be made considering the actual recorded sound which in turn affects the way Rubinstein's view of Chopin reaches us.
In summary, I would suggest that this is essential listening for any serious collector but that it does not have a complete monopoly over interpretation. I prefer to own this as one of many recordings. It is a safe recommendation as an 'only' purchase but not the only one to be considered as an 'only' buy. There are other, equally valid alternatives which offer different approaches and which will suit different listeners for those different ways. I have used just two contrasting alternatives in the course of this review to indicate what those alternative considerations may include.
Further Note: The 10 disc box set published in 2010 with 24 bit remastering of the whole collection offers a significant improvement on sound in every way on all discs. This can be confidently stated as I own both and have been able to do an A/B comparison. That box set must now be the best possible purchase.
on 19 October 2010
I must admit that I was very impressed by this recording. The sound quality is great. It's almost impossible to hear that these recordings are 45 years old. The sound of the piano is warm, gentle and velvety.
Listening to Rubinstein, one really understand that these interpretations are hard to conquer.
This is THE recording of the Chopin Nocturnes you should have in your library.
on 8 August 2014
This is one of those rareities in the music world: A phenominal old recording that shines in today's high performance capable electronics reproduction, by arguably the most genuine authoritative Chopin expert of the last 50 years. Amazing it's available, but I guess that tells you something! Cannot speak too highly of it.