Arthur Rubinstein, widely recognized as one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, died yesterday of an infection at his home in Geneva. He was 95 years old.
He was the last great exponent of the Romantic school of piano playing, characterized by fiery temperament, an emphasis on the poetic elements in music, and a penchant for virtuoso display without much concern about playing all the notes correctly or respecting the composer's style.
At the keyboard he had an aristocratic manner, emphasized in his later years by striking white hair and ruggedly handsome looks.
He enchanted audiences not only with a limpid, crystal tone but also with his ability to accent the music by subtleties in his timing.
He is survived by his wife, from whom he was separated in 1980 and who now lives in Paris, and two sons and two daughters who live in the United States.
Mr. Rubinstein, a native of Poland who became an American citizen in 1946, began his career as a child prodigy late in the last century. He continued it with great success until his retirement in 1976, 70 years after his American debut and 77 years after his professional debut in Europe. Even in his seventies, he gave more than 100 concerts per year, and as late as his eighties he performed massive programs such as the two Brahms piano concertos in a single evening. These are two of the longest and most technically demanding works in the piano repertoire.
Mr. Rubinstein's retirement in his 89th year was caused not so much by failing energy but by eye problems that made it difficult for him to see the keyboard. He remained one of the world's best-known and most popular pianists even in retirement, and more than 50 of his recordings are still in active circulation.
He continued to make records for a while after retiring from his concert career, and when his failing vision made that impossible he threw himself energetically into completing the second book of his two-volume autobiography, "My Many Years," published in 1980--a book that bubbles with enthusiasm for life, happy and vivid memories some of which dated back a half-century or more, and optimism about the future. In this volume, he called the years since his 90th birthday "the happiest time of my life."
Mr. Rubinstein was a noted bon vivant, and included many anecdotes of epic encounters with wine, women and song in his autobiography.
Throughout his life, but particularly in the early part of his career, Mr. Rubinstein's problem as an artist was also his greatest advantage: a natural facility for music, hands that could span four notes beyond an octave, and an ability to make a composition sound good the first time he saw it.
For these reasons, as he admitted in his autobiography, he was able to succeed without working very hard, and he developed attitudes that made it difficult for him to deepen his interpretations as he matured. These attitudes were reinforced by his natural taste for the good life, and also by the taste of audiences in many cities in the early part of the century.
One factor that changed this mass taste was the development of acceptable sound recording--a flashy performance that sounds impressive when heard once in a concert hall can wear thin on repeated hearings if it does not also have depth and solidity. This revolutionary change in popular taste, and in the style of performance, happened in the course of Mr. Rubinstein's career, which began before a piano could be recorded acceptably and extended far into the age of stereophonic sound.
About the middle of his life, after his marriage to Aniela Mylnarska (the daughter of a prominent Polish conductor), he went through a period of self-searching and a change of style, under the influence of Vladimir Horowitz, a friend for a year or two and a rival for the rest of his life. Horowitz had a dazzling technique and was a leading exponent of the newer, more objective and precise style of piano playing.
Mr. Rubinstein emerged from this crisis with a more accurate and disciplined style but never lost the poetic touch that made him nearly unique among pianists in the latter part of the century.
He also continued to play more wrong notes than some other pianists, but audiences did not seem to mind. He once estimated (perhaps joking) that wrong notes had been 30 percent of his performance in his youth. If so, the percentage went down considerably in later years.
Although he began his career as an interpreter of modern music (chiefly Brahms, who was still modern at that time--but also, later, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Villa-Lobos and many others), Arthur Rubinstein will be longest and most fondly remembered as an interpreter of Chopin. He recorded nearly all the piano music of his great countryman, much of it several times. His Chopin interpretations are unique and are still regarded by many critics as the best.
He was also respected, however, as an interpreter of many other classical composers, including Mozart, Beethoven (whose complete piano concertos he recorded three times) and Schumann.
Although he was moderately successful from the beginning of his career, he was raised to international star status in 1916-17 during tours of Spain and Latin America. For this reason, as well as a natural affinity for their brilliant, colorful style, he also became a specialist in the music of modern Spanish composers.
With him at the time of his death was Annabelle Whitestone, a young Englishwoman who had become his manager in the 1970s, helped him write his autobiography and served as his companion for the last three years. She reported that he had developed a fever Saturday, after catching "a sudden infection which the doctors said had been going around Geneva." He had been in failing health since undergoing prostate surgery in 1980.
Arthur Rubinstein was born Jan. 28, 1887, in Lodz, Poland, the youngest of a textile manufacturer's seven children. His talent was recognized, when he was 3 years old, by Joseph Joachim, a violinist, conductor and close colleague of Brahms. Joachim later conducted a Mozart concerto for Rubinstein's professional debut (Potsdam in 1899, which prepared him for his major appearance in Berlin the next year).
He was well-received in Paris in 1904, but got mixed reviews in the United States in 1906 where he made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but his audiences in America seemed to grow more enthusiastic after he changed the spelling of his name in English to "Artur" at the urging of impresario Sol Hurok in the late 1930s. After Hurok's death, he began signing his name "Arthur" again.
He spent most of World War I in England and World War II in the United States, but when world conditions permitted he was an inveterate traveler, performing on several continents nearly every year and enjoying parties, gourmet cooking and good conversation (in the eight languages he spoke well) until dawn after many of his concerts.
In 1976 he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given by the United States.
Besides playing as a soloist in recitals and concertos, Mr. Rubinstein was active and widely respected as a chamber musician. The trio that he formed with violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Emmanuel Feuermann (and, after Feuermann's death, Gregor Piatigorsky) was one of the greatest ensembles of the century and its records are still treasured.
His friends included many of the artistic figures of his time--among them, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Thomas Mann and Pablo Picasso. The Spanish artist "did three portraits of me before he was Picasso and before I was Rubinstein," he once remarked.
Because of his age, Mr. Rubinstein's death did not shock his fans and fellow musicians, but many expressed sadness at the news. Pianist Emanuel Ax, the first winner (in 1974) of the international piano competition named after Mr. Rubinstein and held in Israel, called his death "a great loss to a whole tradition."
"Just meeting Rubinstein was a thrill for any pianist," Ax told the Associated Press. "He was a real link to tradition in western piano music. He was a friend of Rachmaninoff and he knew Debussy. The man was an inspiration to three generations of pianists."
Tom Shepard, head of the classical division of RCA Records, Mr. Rubinstein's recording company from the 1930s until his last recording in 1977, recalled him as one who "loved life more than anybody I have ever known."
"Everything he did he did with joy," Shepard said. "The man radiated joy and you couldn't be with him without that rubbing off on you."
In his final years, when he stopped playing music, Rubinstein continued to enjoy listening to records. It is not known whether he was ushered out of this life with the music he once said he wanted to hear on his deathbed: the slow movement of Schubert's Quintet in C, which he called "music to enter heaven by." graphics:photo: AP Pianist Arthur Rubinstein in a 1974 photo.