The Music of Helena Rubinstein?

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

What do my mother, Helena Rubinstein and Isaac Albeniz have in common? Probably only one thing - they are all mentioned in this article.

Albeniz is the Spanish composer of a CD-full of beautiful piano music recently issued by Centaur, an American label distributed by Qualiton Imports (Centaur CRC 2231). There are many familiar tunes on this disc, which features Belgian pianist Pierre Huybregts pretending he is a Spaniard. The result is 74 minutes of proof that whoever said "you can't buy happiness" was wrong.

When I received this recording, I thought it was going to consist of piano transcriptions from the guitar originals I heard Andrés Segovia play on records years ago. Turns out, though, that Segovia was playing guitar transcriptions from the piano originals, and it's the piano originals which are on this CD.

Like many other classical music lovers, I assumed that Albeniz was primarily a composer of guitar music. So I was surprised to learn from the program notes with this CD that Albeniz never wrote a single piece for that instrument! Prior to Segovia, the guitar was not taken seriously by classical musicians. So Albeniz wrote pieces for the piano which very successfully imitated the feeling and sound of the guitar.

Centaur issued a second outstanding piano CD at the same time (CRC 2235) with Yugoslavian-born pianist Zora Mihailovich performing piano music by Russian composer Anton Rubinstein. It is wonderful to have all these pieces together on one CD, which includes some of the most famous piano works ever written: the Melody in F, the Turkish March from "The Ruins of Athens," and the Romance, Op. 44.

I suspect the reason these three pieces have not been recorded more often is that they are well-known chiefly as material for piano students' first recitals. Professionals may feel this music is too easy to show off their abilities - a problem I think the charming Grieg Lyric Pieces have had as well for many years. Yet these Rubinstein compositions are as melodious and moving as any ever created for the keyboard, and they deserve to be presented together on one disc.

Zora Mihailovich performs with great expressiveness, bringing tears to my eyes in the Romance. But this may well be for extra-musical reasons, since I shall associate that piece for the rest of my life with my mother, who has played it ever since I can remember.

This CD also includes the six unjustly neglected Rubinstein Barcarolles, which I had never heard before. They are enchanting pieces. My favorite, so far, is No. 5. Then, too, I greatly enjoy the romantic Kamennoi-Ostrow, which starts the CD, and the spirited Valse Caprice, which ends it.

Anton Rubinstein (1830-1894) was not only a prolific composer. He was one of the very greatest pianists of his time, a teacher of some of the most important pianists of the next generation, a conductor, a founder and director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and autobiographer.

But don't confuse him with Nikolai Rubinstein (1835-1881), who was also a famous Russian pianist and teacher, head of the influential Russian Musical Society, and a founder and director of the Moscow Conservatory; or with Artur Rubinstein (1887?-1982), the famous Polish pianist and autobiographer who made more recordings than all the other Rubinsteins put together; or with Beryl Rubinstein (1898-1952), the American pianist, teacher and one-time director of the Cleveland Institute of Music; or with Helena Rubinstein (1870?-1965), the cosmetics saleswoman who couldn't even carry a tune.

Best I can tell, none of these Rubinsteins were related to one another. So, if you want your child to grow up to be a professional pianist, teacher, or skin care queen, perhaps you could increase the statistical probability by changing your last name to Rubinstein.


Russian Sketches (Telarc CD-80378) - David Zinman conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in lively performances of Glinka's Overture to "Russian & Ludmilla," Ippolitov-Ivanov's Caucasian Sketches; Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture; and Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini and the Polonaise from "Eugene Onegin."

Autumn Songs: Popular Works for Solo Piano (Telarc CD-80391) - Irish pianist John O'Conor plays well-known Bach, Debussy, Gershwin, Liszt, Mozart, Rubinstein, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schumann, Strauss and Tchaikovsky.

The Symphonies of Gustav Mahler on 11 CDs (Vanguard Classics SVC 2030) - It's amazing how good the sound is on these analog reissues. And so are the performances by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony.

Norwegian Wood (RCA Victor 74321-22488-2) - The young musicians of the Trio Rococo give a pleasing classical treatment to the music of the Beatles, using oboe, cello and harp!

Paper Music (Sony Classical SK 64600) - Vocalist Bobby McFerrin makes his recording debut as conductor of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and it sounds terrific! His incredible voice is used as an instrument in several of the pieces, including Fauré's Pavane, Bach's Concerto for Violin, Strings and Continuo (First Movement), and Tchaikovsky's Andante cantabile for Cello and String Orchestra (Second Movement).

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