For some years, Ida Rubinstein could hardly decide whether to concentrate on acting or dancing. She combined both in mime, but it's the legacy of music she commissioned which has guaranteed her immortality and is being celebrated by Roger Nichols in four programmes in Radio 3's Saturday afternoon series, Vintage Years.
Ravel's Bolero may seem hard to ignore, but when it was first played, it needed Rubinstein's legs (she stood on a table and her movements were minimal) to save people from boredom, or so Paul Sacher suggested in the second programme. At an early performance of Bolero, Florent Schmitt slipped in late because, he said, he had "only come for the final modulation".
Schmitt had been Rubinstein's second choice in the event of Debussy turning down her commission for Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien, but a few years later he came into his own with six substantial orchestral numbers for Gide's French version of Antony and Cleopatra; again, Schmitt was only Rubinstein's second choice, for Stravinsky had asked for an unacceptably high fee. With his love of exotic atmosphere and gift for expressing violence and eroticism, Schmitt was ideal for the job, as a recording of the first suite from his incidental music proved.
Ida Rubinstein's favourite composer for several years was Honegger, who in 1926 wrote music for d'Annunzio's Phoedre - powerful, brooding stuff, though out of context it sounded too protracted. Yet no more spun out than the preparation for the final climax in Jean Roger-Ducasse's Orphee, in which Rubinstein mimed but did not speak. The warmly sumptuous music must have been hard to match on stage, and suffered at the hands of fashion- conscious critics because it had been composed 13 years before Rubinstein's production. Two years later, she put on something that seemed to belong to a different age altogether - Le Baiser de la fee - though Diaghilev, with less than a year to live, was unforgiving, and withering about Stravinsky's music. Unlike Diaghilev, Rubinstein did not seek inspiration in contemporary life, but exclusively mined the inexhaustible riches of myth and legend; and she presented herself as something untouchable. Despite which, she was not too proud to take up one of Diaghilev's rejected scores, Ravel's La Valse.
In the first of five short programmes called The Instrument Makers, broadcast each evening this week, Michael Oliver asked the pianist Melvyn Tan and builder of period pianos, Derek Adlam, what Beethoven's Broadwood of 1817 had to recommend it. That was after he had heard a snatch of Beethoven's Variations on Rule Britannia, in which Tan had obvious difficulty getting the instrument to respond to nimble finger-work and, in particular, repeated notes. Not that the instrument was in poor condition - as Tan pointed out, it was probably in better shape today than when Beethoven was pounding its guts out. The Broadwood was louder, richer in sonority, but less clear than its Viennese contemporaries and so it was better suited to proto-Romantic music than, say, to Mozart. It also had a deep, heavy touch. One of Beethoven's late Bagatelles, at an easy-going tempo, worked better than his Variations. Broadwood's pianos had an influence on the French firm of Erard, who laid the foundations of modern piano action with the double escapement. But for a long time both the English and French makers resisted the later developments of the American firm of Steinway - the rest is history. One of the most revealing remarks was made by Adlam - that performances on period pianos usually take an instrument of a significantly later date than the music; in other words, one that at least begins to answer its needs.Reuse content