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Pianists: A Conspiracy of Conscience

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“I play the piano in every country of the world but two,” Artur Rubinstein often says. “Tibet, because it is too high, and Germany, because it is too low.” To this, he stiffly adds that his Teutonopho-bia is a sturdy vintage ’14—under Hitler it merely matured. It was the atrocities in Belgium during World War I that first moved Rubinstein to swear “a solemn and heavy oath” he would smash his fingers before playing again in Germany, and the oath grew heavier in World War

II when only three of the immense family of Rubinsteins at home in Poland es caped extermination.

Last week, without violating his oath, Rubinstein dominated the news in the German music press. In the Dutch border town of Nijmegen, the pianist played to a hall full of Germans, and as all who attended had foreseen, there was more in the air than just music. For the 1,000 Germans who crossed the border of Ru binstein’s conscience, the recital was a stirring but pleasant penance—a chance to listen to a great Jewish pianist play Beethoven. For Rubinstein, it was a delicate compromise, a gesture of understanding, a test of the heart.

Psychological Crust. Rubinstein has long fortified his total embargo of Germany and Germans with gallows humor (“There are 90 million Jews in the world today. Why? Because there are 30 million Germans, and each reports he personally saved three Jews during the war”). He still harbors the dark suspicion that the presence of one vestigial Nazi dreaming in the dark of a concert hall while listening to a Rubinstein Appassionata would freeze his fingers into furious claws. But the jokes are worn with time, and the thriving German market for Rubinstein recordings has diluted his horror of German ears. Last autumn, when Frankfurt Impresario Hans Schlote proposed the Nijmegen recital, Rubinstein agreed, comforted partly by Schlote’s historically incorrect observation that persons mentally adaptable to war crimes are unlikely to turn up at piano recitals.

Rubinstein has long been an intransigent leader of such musicians as Heifetz and Stern, who also refuse to play in Germany and who have joined Rubinstein in protests against German musicians appearing in the U.S. For them, drawing the line at Nijmegen may have seemed a trifle shaky, but since theirs is a conspiracy of conscience only, no one objected to Rubinstein’s plan. “There is a psychological crust that covers memories, and most people are afraid to break it after only 18 years,” says Violinist Isaac Stern. “I could not and would not play my music in Germany or Austria, or with any German or Austrian citizen or orchestra. This is less pompous, I would say, than establishing myself as a private denazification court to decide which particular Germans are acceptable.”

Nostalgic Pie. News of the Nijmegen recital drew a flurry of editorials in West German papers, and the program handed out in the town’s Concertgebouw contained letters from German Baritone Die trich Fischer-Dieskau and Berlin Phil harmonic Manager Wolfgang Stresemann: all said that no civilized German could fail to understand Rubinstein’s feelings.

Although the burghers of Nijmegen resented the all-German audience (most of the tickets were sold in Germany and only 60 Nijmegeners got in, on tickets made available at the last moment), the recital was a tremendous success with the visitors. The critics agreed that Rubinstein’s playing was almost metaphysical. “The sad thing for us,” mused the Frankfurter Allgemeine, “is that German musical culture of the time of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Liszt, which we have every reason to mourn for, is so immediately present in hardly any artist of the world but Artur Rubinstein.”

There was even some speculation that now, at 74, Rubinstein may be growing a bit nostalgic for the old Germany that treated him so well during seven happy years as a Wunderkind. Perhaps he had played the recital to test the wind for his return to die Heimat.

But that was hollow talk. The line was still drawn. Rubinstein gave the proceeds of the evening to the International Red Cross—still engaged in salving wounds from the war. And as a little reminder that his old oath was not forgotten, he said: “We Jews are sentimental people. We are in tears when we come to a spot where we know our people have been killed. Can you imagine how my hundreds of relatives, all slaughtered by the Germans, would feel looking down from the sky at me—playing in Berlin?”

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