Music was more than notes to pianist Arthur Rubinstein
New York — Pianist Arthur Rubinstein was one of the performing giants of this century.
His career, particularly the last half, was constant proof that there is no substitute for experience. Rubinstein showed that the accumulation of years need not impair one's youthfulness, verve, love of life, and acuteness as a musical thinker.
He was, with the possible exception of Vladimir Horowitz, his alleged rival, the last of a lineage of keyboard titans known for their individuality. (Rubinstein admired Horowitz as a technician, stating ''Horowitz is the better pianist, but I am the better musician.'') Simplicity was Rubinstein's glorious trademark, along with a palpable love of musicmaking and a superb ability to ferret out gorgeous tones from his instrument.
With a few notable exceptions, the very qualities that made Rubinstein unique have been abandoned in the music world today. Rather than emotion, we now have technical prowess, rather than expressivity and poetry we have accuracy, rather than individuality, we have a bland sameness. His countless recordings will serve as a reminder when times change that music is more than notes. Perhaps also the competition in Israel bearing his name will see to it that those few who have found empathy with Rubinstein's ideals will be given recognition until saner, warmer, more individualistic times return.
Mannerism was simply not a part of Rubinstein's stage manner or musical style. One is tempted to call him a romanticist, simply because he had an individual style and tone, but he really was much more of a classicist. His particular gift was the ability to go straight to the heart of a piece, unfold it with simplicity and directness, never fussing too much with a line or overpointing his stresses to show us he ''knew'' what was intended. Playing any of the celebrated Chopin recordings instantly reveals a master of line and understatement.
Not for Rubinstein the merely supervirtuosic, nor the oversentimentalized, nor the taffy-pull school of rubato where every musical point is made with erratic changes of tempo, which marred so many romantics' style. The simplicity of his musical utterings set him apart, and perhaps could be considered his most influential trait, though he never lapsed into the blandness that has evolved today.
Rubinstein's tone was extraordinary. He could reach furious climaxes without a harsh bangy quality ever intruding, and his ability to make lines sing and soar remained one of his most bewitching qualities as a pianist. The span of his hand from pinky to thumb encompassed a 12th - four notes more than an octave. The hands skimmed over the keys with elegance and strength. Even in his last years, the technical side of his playing was strong and forthright. He even made his mistakes with uncommon confidence.
Rubinstein's career had two phases. He was known earlier on as a firebrand and a champion of the new, as well as for a near-riotous life style. By the end of his long, distinguished career, he had developed into a dedicated master, the most celebrated Chopin interpreter of his time. His performances of most of the keyboard masterworks were always eagerly anticipated.
Mr. Rubinstein was born in Lodz, Poland, and was performing publicly by age 4 . His serious training was done in Berlin, under the guidance of Liszt pupil Karl Heinrich Barth (Liszt, in turn, had been taught by Beethoven's prize pupil Czerny). Composer Max Bruch taught him theory. His European debut was in a Mozart concerto with the great violinist Joseph Joachim conducting. His American debut in 1906 was with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
In the earlier days of his career, he championed the music of his friend and compatriot Karol Szymanowski. Stravinsky made a piano version of three sections of ''Petroushka'' for him. As Rubinstein's career burgeoned in South America and Spain, he became increasingly interested in Spanish music. In those days he was trying to make a niche for himself in the face of some formidable talent. In New York alone, the piano scene was dominated by Rachmaninov, Paderewski, and Hofmann.
Rubinstein frankly admitted in his two-part autobiography (''My Young Years'' and the sequel ''My Many Years'') that he made something of a mess of his career in the early days. His early US career was not at all successful. In fact, it was not until the late '30s, under the aegis of impresario Sol Hurok, that Rubinstein started becoming an institution on these shores. By then he had realized that the life of an artist had to reflect dedication rather than self-indulgence. Suddenly he became serious, practiced eight or nine hours a day , and shed the youthful excesses he knew to be impeding his artistic growth.
A patrician directness ruled his every instinct and musical gesture. He had dramatic flair, for sure, but it never intruded on the overall line of a piece. And while his Chopin recordings will be his monument, one must not overlook such memorable recorded events as his Schumann ''Carnaval,'' his various Beethoven sonatas, or the mighty Schubert B-flat major sonata. His readings of such piano-and-orchestra favorites as the Saint-Saens Second Concerto (no one has come close to matching his Gallic restraint within all the delirious and glittery ebulience), Franck's ''Symphonic Variations,'' and de Falla's ''Nights in the Gardens of Spain'' are incomparable.
He was also praised for his Rachmaninov, for his Brahms (numerous recordings of the two concertos exist), and other composers. He recorded the complete concertos of Beethoven twice. We are fortunate that so much Rubinstein exists from so many crucial moments in his career, even though no commemorative project along the lines of the Heifetz, Rachmaninov, or Horowitz reissues was forthcoming from RCA to celebrate his 95th birthday this year.
In this age of increasing shallowness and commercialism, we need to be reminded boldly and often by the artistry of this unique human being that there is more to art than career trappings.
Among his many decorations were the French Legion of Honor, the US Medal of Freedom in 1976 (Rubinstein became a US citizen in 1946), and important honors from Chile, Portugal, Spain, and Belgium. Rubinstein celebrated his 90th birthday in 1977, and shortly thereafter ceased to play in public, though he continued to write, be interviewed, and be featured in documentary movies.