There’s an Arthur Rubinstein recording that accompanies my life

There’s an Arthur Rubinstein recording that accompanies my life


norman lebrecht

April 26, 2019

Anthea Kreston’s weekly diary:

Why do I listen to music? As musicians, we study music, practice, perform, teach, and on the rare occasion that we have a moment to spare, we attend live musical events. What function, then, does pre-recorded music fulfill? What’s it for? Does it remind us of a concert or a performer we care for? A composer whose message resonates with our own lives? Does it help us process personal events – traumas or triumphs? I suspect all of these and more. Do you have one recording that you return to, time and again? I do. It’s Arthur Rubinstein performing the Schubert b flat sonata, D960.

I‘m not a pianist. I can’t even get my two hands to concentrate long enough to play one of my 7 year old daughter’s weekly piano assignments. And forget about all that foot business. I’m not sure if I first started to love that Schubert because, not only does it transport me almost immediately into an alternate reality, it also represents the actual physical magic of 10 short fingers and 88 places, all those strings and mechanics and sound that is like liquid or memory or sadness or fortitude.

It has come with me, from a tape in my first Walkman, into the dashboard of my first car (a rusted Buick Skylark), on CD and into my iPod, now bluetoothed into whichever earbuds or speakers are in the vicinity. It helped me transition from teenager to adult, came with me to college and on a solo car trip from Cleveland to Portland, Oregon. It helped me collapse when my best friend was committed to a mental institution, I shared it with the first man I fell in love with, and I have given birth to it. And now it is in my ears as I drive between Prague and Berlin, processing and categorizing the last chunk of my life.

It’s like nothing happens, that one note repeating in the left hand – gentle but persistent – the right hand noble and true, yet unable to to travel anywhere but along the same path it has been on for as long as your world has existed. Memory and future melded into one with an occasional grumble which reminds us of our own inevitable deaths – gentle or normal or disturbing deaths which naturally follow lives which have been exactly like all of the other lives. I mean the lives that have beginnings, middles and ends, regardless of how long or short those parts are.

I decided to give birth like an animal, I suppose. In which I mean, I used the wisdom of women who had helped other women give birth like animals, trusting the body to do what it knows how to do, what all women have known how to do forever. To give birth to us. If you, yourself haven’t given birth, you have been given birth to, by someone who spent 9 months growing you and then did something that was, like the Schubert, both inevitable and extraordinary. Personal and universal. In that birthing center, with my midwife, doula, and Jason, there was no sound other than that Schubert. The length of phrase perfectly accompanied me through those long contractions. It wasn’t painful – I decided it wasn’t. I decided it was me trying to open a door at the same time that someone on the other side was also trying to open the door. Jason walked with me, or supported me while I swayed. At one point, the midwife began to suggest something to me, as the doula touched her on the shoulder. She said – “let her do it – she doesn’t need our help”. Eventually a large bath was filled with water, and as I slipped in, and began to push, the baby came out, floating up within a perfectly intact amniotic sac. My water had never broken, and as we watched, the baby floated in the tub, perfectly, calmly and happily encased and yet still attached to me by umbilical cord. All it needed it was still receiving through that cord, into its little bubble world. As I reached down to grasp the baby, the sac melted away, and my second daughter came to be nestled against my chest.

All the while, no words had been spoken, and as Mirabai took her first gulps of breath, the Schubert D960 continued to envelop us in its own magical sac. My doula, an older Dutch woman, told me that a birth inside the Caul is extremely rare, and signifies a person with the ability to see the future. In Ancient cultures, men would carry the Caul for protection into battle or on ships; feared those born within for their witchcraft or for the power to see ghosts.

We are always happy to have our own little soothsayer in the family – the first time we noticed it was when, at the age of 2, Mirabai correctly guessed the answers to the board game Clue – Ms. Plum in the Library with the Candlestick – to the surprise of the table of adults holding their well-scribbled crib sheets. From that moment on, she is always first choice on any board-game team.

I guess, what the Schubert does for me, is that it takes whatever situation I happen to find myself in, and simply moves it slightly to the right or to the left. I am still inside the same bubble, but I just look out of it in a different direction, and all of a sudden everything is the same and also different. Like life happens to you no matter what, and also that you can change your situation simply by looking a different direction. I was a child, and then an adult – I was one person, then two – I played in a quartet, then I…..



  • Mike Schachter says:

    As I get older I appreciate more and more that, as the beer ad used to say, Schubert reaches places no other composer did before or since-or probably ever will. As Ms Kreston beautifully puts it, his greatest works take you into a different world.

  • Christopher Storey says:

    Too much ….Much too much… information

    • JPAULO says:

      Totally agreed. Lol. Usually really enjoy her posts !! TMI. I was ok til we got to the doula. 😛

      • Anthea Kreston says:

        Hahahah. At least I didn’t post the photos! I have rarely been accused of being too shy. Once I loaned my old iPhone to a student so they could make practice recordings and by accident it had the birth photos on it. She came back the next week and said, “by the way – nice photos…..“

        • JPAULO says:

          Lolol. You keep writing whatever you want. It is always so enjoyably written. This one just took me by surprise at first.

        • David Saldanha says:

          Thank you an Norman Lebrecht for your interesting post. In case you have not seen, here is a link to film from 1966 of Rubinstein playing the sonata live in Warsaw! (along with Schumann’s Carnaval – the only film of him petforming these two works). This miraculously appeared on YouTube just a month after your post.

  • John Dalkas says:

    Thank you, Anthea, for your moving story about this achingly beautiful sonata.

    You and others may enjoy hearing more along similar lines in this short program, which recently aired on the BBC’s Soul Music, Series 27: “Personal stories of Schubert’s B-Flat Piano Sonata which he wrote just weeks before his death”:

  • Andrew says:

    The recording that has stayed with me over time is one I swiped from my father’s collection when I was in college. Khachaturian’s piano concerto; Peter Katins with Hugo Rignold conducting. Everest SBDR 3055. Played it just yesterday.

  • Bruce says:

    Lovely as usual.

  • Robert Roy says:

    A year after Arthur Rubenstein died, his daughter went into a well known New York record store to buy some of her father’s Chopin CDs for a friend. She looked under Chopin and found nothing by Rubenstein. She then looked at the Pianists section and found no recordings by her late father.

    She couldn’t believe her father had been forgotten so quickly after his death. She approached the assistant and asked if it would be possible to order them.

    “Oh Madam, we have the full stock of Rubenstein’s recordings but we keep them in a special section reserved for LEGENDS!’

  • Jeff Levenson says:

    Thanks for this post Anthea.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    And we can draw a veil over how many acts of passion it’s accompanied over the years 😉

  • Marg says:

    Anthea, that is really a wonderful narrative. Thank you for sharing it. I listen to music all the time, but when my world has slipped off its axis I go back to Bach – pretty well anything of his will restore balance.

  • Murray Citron says:

    I have the recording on an LP (Victor Red Seal LSC 3122); quite a lovely performance indeed…not sure why the sound makes me think of pastels, but it does.

  • Elvira says:

    I started to learn this sonata in1967.It was Israel,war,and many times I was rushing with the score in the shelter ,the music was keeping me sane.The beginning will remain in my memory always mixed with the sound of the sirens.
    Second movement probably one of the most sublime creation.