Among Arthur Rubinstein's latest recordings were a complete set of the Beethoven concertos, with Daniel Barenboim conducting the London Philharmonic (RCA CRL5-1415) and his first appearance on London/Decca, in the Brahms Concerto No. 1 in D minor with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic (London CS-7016). It was his third time round with both titles, and he had made individual recordings of the Beethoven Third and Fourth concertos before undertaking the first of his three integral sets.
Obviously these works were especially close to Rubinstein, who less than two years ago was still traveling about performing the Beethoven G-major and the Brahms D-minor on a single program. These last recorded performances, though, would seem to have more in the way of sentimental value than strictly musical appeal, and one suspects it was the former consideration that led to the recent Grammy Award for the Beethoven set. For my money, the Beethoven set with Leinsdorf contains much stronger performances than the newer one with Barenboim, and the older set with Josef Krips conducting disclosed more elegance than either of its successors.
In the matter of the Brahms D-monor, the new London record preserves a performance that might make it on sheer personality in the concert hall, but which stands up less well on the turntable. It is not that Rubinstein at 89 lacked fire, but - even though he and Mehta had performed the work together several times prior to the recording session - soloist and conductor are not always togethr in matters of temp; moreover, the recorded balance favors the piano to a quite unnatural degree - in this "symphony with piano obbligato," of all works.
Again, a previous recording with Leindorf and the Boston Symphoney is preferable, but again, too, there is an earlier versiion still richer in the Rubinstein (and Brahms) magic; in this case RCA has pulled a double surprise in not only reissuing the earlier recording but presenting it in a sonic frame remarkably superior to that of the original release - competitive, in fact, with recent issues.
This of course is Rubinstein's magnificent collaboration with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphoney Orchestra, recorded in April 1954 and heretofore issued in mono only; it was deleted about a dozen years ago, but now turns up in genuine stereo (RCA ARLI-2044). RCA was taping many sessions at that time with two separate teams for mono and stereo, the latter in an experimental context; few of those early stereo recordings were released as such, though many made in Chicago materialized much later on the Victrola label. This one was one of the engineers' best jobs, and it is well worth the Red Seal price low. (That price, by the way, has escalated to the Phillips/DG import level of $7.96!)
What was murky in the old mono edition is now transparently clear, every instrumental detail shining through with that peculiarly Brahmain lambency. Rubinstein's playing has a wonderful improvisatory quality, which has nothing to do with casualness but much to do with intimacy. That, indeed, is the keynote of this performance. There is no question of conductor and soloist being out of alignment at any point, and the chambermusic give-and-take of their performance, as much as its elegance, places it in the most exalted category of music making. This is a gem in its own right, and a high point among the several peaks of Rubinstein's recorded legacy.