Rubinstein: Piano Concerto #4

«Villoing had worked with Rubinstein on hand position and finger dexterity. From watching Liszt, Rubinstein had learned about freedom of arm movement. Theodor Leschetizky, who taught piano at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory when it opened, likened muscular relaxation at the piano to a singer’s deep breathing. He would remark to his students about “what deep breaths Rubinstein used to take at the beginning of long phrases, and also what repose he had and what dramatic pauses.”

In his book The Great Pianists, former New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg describes Rubinstein’s playing as that “of extraordinary breadth, virility and vitality, immense sonority and technical grandeur in which all too often technical sloppiness asserted itself.” When caught up in the moment of performance, Rubinstein did not seem to care how many wrong notes he played as long as his conception of the piece he was playing came through. Rubinstein himself admitted, after a concert in Berlin in 1875, “If I could gather up all the notes that I let fall under the piano, I could give a second concert with them.”

Part of the problem might have been the sheer size of Rubinstein’s hands. They were huge, and many observers commented on them. Josef Hofmann observed that Rubinstein’s fifth finger “was as thick as my thumb—think of it! Then his fingers were square at the ends, with cushions on them. It was a wonderful hand.” Pianist Josef Lhevinne described them as “fat, pudgy … with fingers so broad at the finger-tips that he often had difficulty in not striking two notes at once.” The German piano teacher Ludwig Deppe advised American pianist Amy Fay to watch carefully how Rubinstein struck his chords: “Nothing cramped about him! He spreads his hands as if he were going to take in the universe, and takes them up with the greatest freedom and abandon!”

Because of the slap-dash moments in Rubinstein’s playing, some more academic, polished players, especially German-trained ones, seriously questioned Rubinstein’s greatness. Those who valued interpretation as much or more than pure technique found much to praise. Pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow called Rubinstein “the Michelangelo of music.” The German critic Ludwig Rellstab called him “the Hercules of the piano; the Jupiter Tonans of the instrument.”»


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