As Franz Liszt put it, the Polish word zal “includes all the tenderness…of a regret borne with resignation and without a murmur.” Fryderyk Chopin felt zal, and so did one of his greatest disciples.
The headline in the May 26th, 1947 edition of Time magazine read “Man with Zal.” The subject was pianist Artur Rubinstein. “Rubinstein is at his best in Chopin, and vice versa,” the article declared. “Chopin's elusive poetic shadings and magical fire are easy to overdo. As a Pole, Rubinstein seems to understand the zal in Chopin's works.”
Artur Rubinstein was born in Lodz, Poland, less than 40 years after Chopin’s death and some 55 miles from Chopin’s birthplace. At 21, Chopin moved to Paris. Rubinstein did the same thing at 17. Chopin blamed the Russians for his 19th–century exile; Russia’s continued dominance of Poland in the 20th drew Rubinstein to his forebear. Rubinstein recalled, “we were not allowed to read Polish history or study Polish art, and we found our outlet for our emotions in Chopin.”
Zal was not all of the Rubinstein story. He had a long, active and happy life. He recorded Chopin’s music to great acclaim—some pieces as many as three times. Critics praised his Chopin for its “warmth, lyricism… spontaneity and freshness.” When Rubinstein died in 1982 at the age of 95, The New York Times wrote: “As a Chopinist…he was considered by many without peer.”
As a Pole and as a pianist who loved Chopin, Rubinstein understood zal but it didn’t consume his life. Artur Rubinstein often described himself as “the happiest man I’ve ever met,” a statement Chopin would never have understood. - Frank Dominguez & Don Lee