It's somewhat dismaying to read reviews that begin with something like "Obviously, Rubinstein was a great famous pianist, and this is one of the greatest Chopin recordings EVER!" Clearly, there's no argument with the opening - Rubinstein was one of the titans of the keyboard during the 20th century, and many of his recordings still provide tremendous enjoyment. But for this listener, these justly famous recordings of Chopin - far from complete - are neither the finest examples of this pianist's legacy nor the finest recordings of the works themselves.
I highly recommend this set for the casual listener, who wants to have some Chopin in his or her collection. You can pick it up on amazon currently for about $21 (for 11 discs!!) For that price, this set will sate your appetite, and provide hours - if not a lifetime - of listening pleasure.
For the student of music, or piano, or simply the more discerning listener/collector, this set should be - and needs to be - heard in context. Rubinstein was in his "early" senior years when the recordings were made. Gone is the flamboyance, and risk taking of his youth. In its place was a golden, burnished piano tone, and careful - oh so careful - playing. Careful is good. Careful is meticulous. Careful is boring.
There are those who will jump all over me for suggesting this (particularly those who end the first sentence of their review with the word "EVER!") but there is a monotony associated with this set of recordings - a beautiful monotony to be sure, but a monotony none the less. The playing works for the beautiful Nocturnes and Waltzes, but is far less successful for, say, the Mazurkas which sound like cocktail hour at a senior center.
After two or three discs all the playing begins to sound the same. By five discs it sounds like an interminable concert of notes written by Chopin. Halfway through, you may fall asleep. Beauty without drama has a tendency to become deadly. For fans of Rubinstein - and I count myself as one of his bigger ones out there, I strongly suggest you explore the recently re-issued remasters from the Rubinstein Collection. While sound quality of the earliest recordings in the series varies - the 1930s recordings of the Mazurkas for example - most of the discs sound very, very good. It's the playing, the musicianship, that is in a different league. You can practically see the townsfolk dance to these Mazurkas as you listen to Rubinstein's gleeful, swinging playing from his youth.
These justly famous recordings from the 1960s - Rubinstein's only stereo recordings of Chopin - do not represent this great artist in his prime - this is the playing of an elder stateman. For pop fans, it would be like gaining your inital exposure to Paul McCartney through a listen of Chaos and Confusion In The Backyard and wondering what all the fuss over Beatlemania was about. It's pretty, yet bland - and hardly memorable. Unfortunately, this is true of Rubinstein's final recordings of Chopin as well.
(Although Rubinstein was capable of stupendous playing in his later years, he seldom attained such heights in the controlled legacy atmosphere of the studio. Check out his famous Carnegie Hall concert Rubinstein Collection, Vol. 42or the rarer, and God-like playing of his 1960s Moscow concert Rubinstein Collection, Vol. 62: Recital in Moscow. Better yet, WATCH Rubinstein in Moscow on this recently issued DVD of the performance Classic Archive: Artur Rubinstein - The Legendary Moscow Recital
In conclusion - this is a fine introductory purchase, or second set for the bookshelf. For lovers of the piano however, I strongly urge readers to heed the advice of another reviewer for this listing C. Pontis Tholin (as I did) and explore Garrick Ohlsson's magnificent traversal of Chopin music - all of it. Ohllson's recordings dust off this music and take it out of the salon. His performances sparkle, and provide each and every work with a distinquishing sparkle and personality, bringing Chopin to life as never before. Complete Works Truly revelatory. If you're interested, make sure you check out the pricing at amazon.com/uk. (NOTE - 6/10 - The Ohlsson set is routinely listed on Amazon for about $62 from an overseasl vendor who is reliable - I know because I purchased a set from this vendor as gift for a friend! - At this price, the Hyperion set is a steal)
For Rubinstein lovers, let me also recommend Harvey Sachs' great biography of the master, which you can currently pick up on amazon for a little over a dollar. A great read, Sachs' biography will further your appreciation of this great artist and his music.