RUBINSTEIN: the name was a synonym for musical achievement, enough in itself to bring a rush of exhilaration to anyone who knew what piano playing was. Arthur Rubinstein--he had learned from the legends of the 19th century, and he became one of the two or three dominant performing artists of the 20th, a ranking custodian of the high classical tradition by which humans reach beyond words for their inner selves. His concerts, his records, even the anecdotes about him--anecdotes cluster about the great musicians--became events in the culture and in the lives of all he touched with his art.
The man who died Monday in Geneva played in public for some 85 of his 95 years. It was his distinction, perhaps his secret, as an artist to respond eagerly to each of the challenges he met at different phases of his career. Youth brought him a prodigy's easy triumphs. Maturity found him probing the music ever more deeply. Improvements in recording technology let him listen and adjust. Constant concerts kept him responsive to new audiences. Concertos let him play the heroic individual role that the musical public invites piano soloists to fill. Chamber music evoked humility before the iron demands of ensemble. His reputation was built on interpreting the masters, especially his fellow Pole, Chopin, but his repertory never stopped growing. The tremendous appetite for human experience that expressed itself fully in his exuberant life style came out in his music as irrepressible joy.
His stagecraft was magic: the small, trim body yielding to the progress of the piece, the hands instructing keys and listeners alike, the eyes looking beyond the keys and seemingly beyond the very notes into the distant place where the essence of the music lay. The sound was, well, the sound was simply gorgeous, a sound that made one forget the piano was a percussive instrument, as Harold Schonberg put it. There was a line to his playing, and an enormous control of the material of the music. In that mysterious triangulation of composer, performer and audience, something new was created every time Arthur Rubinstein played.