April 1, 2018
Today, April 1st, is the pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s birthday.
Which reminds me of a story.
“Which reminds me of a story,” said the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, turning to us, the Guarneri String Quartet, while remaining seated at the piano. We four happily put down our instruments, having just been bathed in Rubinstein’s ravishing playing, leaned back in our chairs, and prepared for yet another of his irresistible tales. It was something that had already occurred many times while we rehearsed for the three concerts we would perform together in New York City, London, and Paris, and the ten works we eventually recorded with him.
Something, anything, could set Rubinstein off, great raconteur that he was. It could happen between movements or even while we stopped to rehearse a specific musical passage. And it could be a story about someone of significance that Rubinstein had encountered—painter Pablo Picasso or composer Maurice Ravel, for example−or it could be about a situation in which Rubinstein himself had been made the fool. He particularly loved those kinds of stories, which I thought endearing for a man of his stature.
“You know, the Grieg Piano Concerto was Rachmaninoff’s absolutely favorite of all concertos,” Rubinstein announced. This, I certainly did not know. I love the Grieg Concerto as much as anyone, but to regard it above concertos written by giants such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms? I found that hard to believe.
And yet with hindsight these many years later, I can begin to understand Rachmaninoff’s preference. A friend, visiting none other than the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok in New York City, found him studying the score of the Grieg Concerto. Bartok, representing a radical new direction in music, told his surprised friend that he admired not only the work itself but also the way in which Grieg had turned to the musical language of his homeland, Norway, for inspiration. Bartok himself had drawn on the folk idiom of his native Hungary, and one could make that case for Rachmaninoff as well. Rachmaninoff’s signature voice is clearly embedded in everything he composed, but also his Russian soul−its melancholy and its soaring lyricism.
I can no longer remember what reminded Rubinstein of Rachmaninoff’s love for the Grieg Concerto. Perhaps we were rehearsing on April 1st, Rachmaninoff’s birthday, or it might have been that Rubinstein had just heard our recording of Grieg’s String Quartet in G Minor, but in any case, Rubinstein had more to say.
“At one point, I recorded the Grieg Concerto,” Rubinstein recounted. “You know how it is with recordings. Some you like, some you wish you had done better. In this case, however, I had never been more pleased than with this recording’s outcome. Rachmaninoff and I were old friends and we both lived in Los Angeles at the time. Why not invite him and his wife to dinner as I, and my wife, had done many times before? Of course, in this case I had an ulterior motive. Against my better judgment, I dearly wanted to show off my new recording of the Grieg, a work so dear to Rachmaninoff. He, the great pianist and artist, would love my performance, I hoped−the grandest compliment imaginable.”
Rubinstein, clearly relishing the remembrance of this event, told us that the dinner took place without incident, followed by dessert and coffee. This was the moment that Rubinstein had planned all along, and gathering up his courage, he asked Rachmaninoff, “Sergei, I’ve just recorded the Grieg Piano Concerto, and if it wouldn’t be too, too much of an imposition, would you mind listening to it?” Rachmaninoff, a man of few words, merely nodded in assent.
Rubenstein continued his story: “Rachmaninoff sat impassively as we listened, while I squirmed. I was hoping for a favorable response from the man who was generally regarded as the greatest pianist of his time. But Rachmaninoff revealed not a touch of emotion on that stone face of his,” Rubinstein remembered, adding Rachmaninoff’s sober facial expression for comical effect.
“When the Grieg came to an end, the silence that followed seemed to last forever. Rachmaninoff sat quite still in his chair as if he were a statue. Eventually, he roused himself from his introspection and turned to me.
“‘Arthur,’ he said.’ ‘Yes, Sergei’ I answered, leaning forward as my heart beat faster in expectation of what he might say. ‘Arthur, the piano is out of tune.’”
It was vintage Rubinstein, with him as the butt of the joke. When our laughter subsided, he turned back to the keyboard, we picked up our instruments once again, and the rehearsal continued with sounds of indescribable beauty issuing forth from the piano−that is, until Rubinstein told us his next story, not very much later.
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