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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Girl You Came In With

FACED WITH A SET of 142 CDs, I charted the only logical listening course. I’m going through them in numerical order. This is Sony Classical’s new “Arthur Rubinstein: The Complete Album Collection,” part of an appealing series that puts CD recreations of original LP releases in cardboard CD cases that recreate the artwork of the original LPs. If, like aging me, you collected the originals, it’s a nostalgic treat.

I had an epiphany when I got to Disc 105. It’s Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony – and it was the first Rubinstein record I owned. Acquired by mistake from the RCA Record Club.

When you signed up for this so-called club, you got 12 albums for a penny. You only had to buy a specified number (it changed) thereafter at full price to fulfill your obligation, after which you’d be showered with discounts. The more miserly classical-music division gave you only four albums for that copper cent. Being a violin-crazy teenager, my intro package was four Heifetz LPs.

The catch: every four weeks or so you received a magazine listing current offerings, one of which was chosen for you as the Main Selection. Unless you returned the don’t-want-it card by a certain date, this was automatically dispatched to you.
I was never interested in Main Selections. In fact, I was rarely interested in anything listed in the magazine, so I found item numbers for other Heifetz releases (thanks, Schwann catalogue) and wrote them in. And received them!

One month – this probably was in 1969 – I forgot to return the card and the Rubinstein record arrived. I was unfamiliar with the piece. It quickly grew on me. Like so much of the music I discovered back then, I listened obsessively.

About 20 years ago I purged the bulk of my LP holdings. I hadn’t CD-replaced the Rubinstein/Beethoven, but I since acquired other recordings of the piece, with versions by Brendel and Richter, Fleischer and Gould (crazy cadenza!) and even Rubinstein’s 1956 recording with conductor Josef Krips among them. In the two decades since, I’ve collected many more.

The epiphany upon hearing the Rubinstein-Leinsdorf version was that I knew every nuance of the piece. I could anticipate every tiny change of tempo, every orchestral phrase even down to the timbre of the woodwind soloists. So thoroughly had it been inculcated that it was with me still.

Those first-discovery recordings make very deep impressions, and I question my objectivity when it comes to passing judgment on others. I faced this several years ago when reviewing Stephanie Chase’s performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, when she was a guest artist with the Albany Symphony.

What’s in my ears? The Heifetz recording, of course, one of those RCA Record Club introductory four, with Charles Munch conducting the BSO. I can summon every nuance of it to my mind’s ear. When I hear somebody else playing – and I have recordings of it galore – there’s an ongoing dissonance as the versions clash. So here came Chase to the stage, the conductor gave the downbeat, the four tympani taps sounded . . . and the tempo was unbelievably slow and remained that way throughout the movement.

To my credit (and I’d might as well be the one to lavish me with praise) I could find no fault with Chase’s performance. It was well crafted and dramatically sound and she played with reassuring accomplishment. I couldn’t very well compare it to the Heifetz version. So I forced myself to find ways to describe the performance’s merit, which meant getting away from the horserace aspect of reviewing, the this-is-better-than-that horseshit that provides quick bites of small-minded amusement.

A few summers ago I saw Martha Argerich play Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Dutoit. It was glorious – better in person than even in her recording with that close-to-her-heart conductor. The recording remains wonderful, but I don’t have the visceral reaction to it that I have when I hear William Kapell’s old, hissy version.

Another record club mistake netted Julian Bream’s “Dances of Dowland,” the sweet sounds of which crept in my ear and took up permanent residence. Peace be with you, Paul O’Dette, but Bream got there first.

As a kid, I didn’t care about fidelity. I played my records on a Webcor piece of crap, and surface noise and constrained dynamics seemed part of it. That’s how Toscanini ruined me for Beethoven symphonies. Reviewing Simon Rattle’s recent set, I found much to laud in the consistency of his performances, filled with characteristic lushness, and the audio quality is superb. I had a happy time with Rattle’s Seventh. But, on my own time, I end up back at Toscanini’s 1936 NY Phil recording.

Is any measure of objectivity truly possible to achieve as we explore the worlds of music? I’m often hard pressed to describe why a particular interpretation appeals to me, and I’ve been paid to do so for over 25 years. Certainly it’s easier when the apples and oranges I’m asked to compare were harvested in the relatively recent past. But when you throw in one of the recordings I absorbed in my obsessive teens – well, I’m going to dance with the girl I came in with.

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