Classical: The Compact Collection

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The Independent Culture
IN A year that has seen numerous CD marathons launched or completed, RCA's The Rubinstein Collection stands out as one of the most stylish record packages ever released. The handsome grey casing houses 94 CDs in 82 laminated volumes, with separate disc notes and a 376-page hard- bound book. Black ribbon tabs access three pull-out disc shelves, and the exhaustive documentation allows you to study individual programmes, featured composers (Chopin and Brahms are the main players) and recording dates. There are essays, and copious photographs.

And there are the recordings, all 706 of them, starting in 1928 with short solos by Chopin, Brahms and Schubert, and ending in 1976 with major Schumann and Beethoven. Rubinstein rejected the old "acoustic horn" recording process (the sort used by Caruso) because, as he himself said, it made the piano sound like a banjo. Certainly, no pre-electric recording system could have reproduced that inimitably rounded tone.

The big question is: do you actually need three Rubinstein recordings of Chopin's complete published Concertos, Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Scherzos and Polonaises; three of Beethoven's complete piano concertos; or four each of Brahms' Second Piano Concerto and Beethoven's Appassionata?

Is all this merely train spotting, Asprey-style?There are many more multiple recordings, but what is particularly interesting - aside from the fact that a fair proportion of them have either never appeared in Britain or have been out of the catalogues for years - is that they really do differ from each other. Following Rubinstein's changing view of (to quote just one precious miniature) Chopin's Fifth Mazurka runs from elegance in the Thirties, to playful voicing in the Fifties and added composure in the Sixties.

A 1929 Brahms Second Concerto (recorded in London) is irresponsibly slapdash, whereas a 1952 re-make is fitfully exciting and the first stereo version (of 1958), beautifully balanced in all its parts. There are zingy chamber- music collaborations with Jascha Heifetz from the forties, and affable encounters with the Guarneri Quartet from the Sixties and Seventies. Many of the chamber repertory's finest works are represented.

Live recordings include 20th century music at Carnegie Hall and a mostly- Chopin recital in Moscow, with a glaring memory-lapse in Chopin's Funeral March Sonata newly "corrected". Was that decision strictly ethical? Perhaps not, but then almost everything else in the set was authorised for release by Rubinstein himself. The Moscow concert, a thrilling occasion, wouldn't have been, at least not as it stood. Still, it's a trifling detail.

What matters most is the overall quality of the playing, whether in Brahms that matures from youthful impetuosity to serene wisdom, or in Chopin that dances, rages and dreams, or tempestuous Beethoven, aristocratic Mozart, tangy Spanish lollipops or tasty French delicacies. A Rubinstein performance was nearly always "of a piece", a carefully considered statement and beautifully executed. Though easily identifiable by ear, he rarely paraded attention-seeking eccentricities or mannerisms. No other "Golden Age" pianist eased into great music more comfortably than Rubinstein did, and his very urbanity has much to teach us. If you feel flush, then I doubt that his art will ever receive a more regal tribute. If, however, the bottom line is just too prohibitive (around pounds 900) then take comfort in the fact that all 82 volumes are due for separate release, starting early next year.

The Rubinstein Collection RCA Red Seal 09026-63000-2 (94 CDs)