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3. January 2021

Well Played – Artur Rubinstein


Lianyi Zhang

Forgive me for using a word that – sadly – has been drastically overused in recent years. However, if there is one person to whom the term dandy applies readily, then it is Arthur Rubinstein. In my view, Rubinstein is not only one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century but also one of the best-dressed. 

Rubinstein was born in Łódź, central Poland, in 1887 – at the very time when dandyism surged in London and Paris. He started playing the piano when he was very young and so his talent was discovered early on. At the age of ten he was sent to Berlin where, under patronage of the great Joseph Joachim (a friend of Brahms), he was taught by the renowned professor Barth for seven years. At the age of seventeen, he made up his mind to move to Paris where he started his career as a solo pianist. When he retired in 1976, at the tender age of 89, he could look back at one of the greatest careers a solo pianist could dream of. 

His younger years in Paris did not only shape his sense of dressing, but also his musical style. There, in the metropolis of the Belle Époque, Rubinstein lived like a true nineteenth-century dandy. Like Chopin, he spent his time at salons where he met some of the greatest artists of the time: Ravel und Dukas. The salons, however, offered many more pleasures than a good conversation. Rubinstein lived like a hedonist and he very much enjoyed Paris’ joie de vivre. As he remembers in his autobiography, My Young Years, he was constantly surrounded by parties and women. To no one’s surprise, it was also in Paris where Rubinstein found some of his lifelong predilections: caviar, champagne and cigars. 

However, Rubinstein’s dandyism transcended the culinary sphere. As many photographs reveal, he liked to fashion himself as a very elegant figure. In early portraits, he is dressed in typical Fin de Siècle fashion: frock coats with wing-collar shirts and smoking gowns with quilted lapels. These photographs capture Rubinstein with a gaze that could be described as aristocratic – aloof one might even say – but also slightly melancholic.

When frock coats came out of fashion, he switched to suits; mostly single-breasted. He often wore three-piece suits with notch lapels, two-piece suits with a contrasting morning waistcoat or checked sports coats. Accessories were scarce but precise: Whenever he wore ties (i.e., except when he was on stage), he garnished them with a distinctive tie pin. Even though tie-pins are a very nineteenth-century accessory, Rubinstein almost always wore one. The maestro often combined them with a contrasting lapel pin. A much later picture shows Rubinstein – by then, a happy old man – in a warmly coloured shirt, a polka-dot cravat and a panama hat. Always at hand, sometimes even while performing: a cigar.

Rubinstein the pianist is much more rigorous though, and the debauchery one might associate with dandyism must not be used to describe his artistry. In contrast, the precision with which he played is reflected in his sense of dressing – very elegant, slightly extravagant but never ostentatious. Rubinstein, hailed for his interpretations of Chopin’s compositions, is actually a rather versatile pianist. His repertoire includes Russian and German works and he has played various pieces by Spanish composers such as Isaac Albéniz. By and large, his interpretations reflect his character and they might best be described as vigorous, elegant and poetic. His technique was brilliant and emphatic due to his powerful key-touching. He maintained the genuineness and rhythmical stability intended by the composers without the ostentatious over-sentimentality and kitschy virtuosity often heard from younger pianists. LZ/YS

We highly recommend the following playlist with some of Mr Zhang’s favourite pieces by Artur Rubinstein. Please enjoy listening!