Non credo siano molti quelli che oggi ricordano il nome di Michael Rabin. Eppure il virtuoso newyorkese, scomparso tragicamente a soli trentasei anni, fu acclamato durante la carriera come il massimo talento violinistico della sua generazione. Come Dinu Lipatti e Ginette Neveu, anche Rabin appartiene al novero di quei talenti che furono stroncati da un destino tragico mentre erano al culmine della loro maturità artistica. E come nel caso di altri grandissimi artisti, la vita di questo asso del violino costituisce un esempio di una personalità incapace di reggere la fortissima tensione nervosa e lo stress che una carriera concertistica ai massimi livelli immancabilmente comporta. Pensiamo, per esempio, anche alle travagliate vicende personali che finirono per distruggere due musicisti di classe straordinaria come Christian Ferras e Samson Francois. Per quanto riguarda Rabin, probabilmente questi aspetti furono aggravati dalle difficoltà emotive causate dalla precocità di un talento rivelatosi fin dall’ infanzia, che lo portò a iniziare una carriera di bambino prodigio i cui aspetti collaterali con ogni probabilità ebbero effetti devastanti su una personalità rivelatasi fin dagli inizi fragile dal punto di vista psicologico.
Michael Rabin nacque a New York il 2 marzo 1936 da una famiglia di origini ebree rumene. Il padre George era un violinista della New York Philharmonic, la madre una pianista. A sette anni iniziò gli studi violinistici alla Julliard School con Ivan Galamian, reputato insegnante di origini armene che ebbe per allievi, tra gli altri, anche Kyung-wha Chung, Jaime Laredo, Itzhak Perlman e Pinchas Zukerman. A dieci anni di età, nel 1947, Rabin si esibì per la prima volta in pubblico suonando il Concerto N° 1 di Wieniawski con la Havanna Symphony Orchestra, diretta da Artur Rodziński. Il suo debutto newyorkese avvenne nel gennaio del 1950 alla Carnegie Hall, con il Quinto concerto di Vieuxtemps. Diciotto mesi dopo, il 29 novembre 1951, Rabin debuttava con la New York Philharmonic eseguendo il Concerto N° 1 di Paganini sotto la direzione di Dimitri Mitropoulos. Il grande direttore greco espresse pubblicamente la sua entusiastica ammirazione per questo giovane talento e la carriera di Rabin esplose immediatamente a livello internazionale. L’ anno seguente il violinista, oltre ad entrare in possesso di uno splendido Guarneri del Gesù appartenuto in precedenza al leggendario Jan Kubelik, firmò un contratto discografico con la Capitol-EMI, per la quale eseguì diverse registrazioni. Tra di esse spicca quella dei Capricci di Paganini, considerata ancor oggi da molti critici e studiosi come la versione discografica di riferimento.
Sul finire degli anni Cinquanta, mentre la carriera di Michael Rabin procedeva in maniera trionfale, incominciarono a diffondersi voci sempre più insistenti sui problemi psicologici di cui soffriva l’ artista dovuti anche, si disse, ad abuso di alcool e droghe. Risulta con certezza che il suo contratto discografico non venne rinnovato dopo la scadenza avvenuta nel 1959, anche se la carriera concertistica del virtuoso continuò ancora per diversi anni ad altissimi livelli. La fine di Rabin avvenne comunque in circostanze mai del tutto chiarite ma senza dubbio tragiche. Il 19 gennaio 1972 fu trovato morto nel suo appartamento newyorkese dalla cantante June LeBell, sua ex fidanzata, che aveva più volte tentato di raggiungerlo telefonicamente. Dall’ inchiesta della magistratura risultò che Rabin stava aprendo una scatoletta di tonno e fosse scivolato mentre tentava di raggiungere in fretta il telefono che squillava. Anche se nell’ appartamento vennero rinvenuti diversi flaconi di barbiturici, l’ autopsia chiarì che il violinista non si trovava sotto l’ effetto di droghe al momento del decesso. Questa versione è riportata anche nella biografia di Rabin scritta da Anthony Feinstein e pubblicata nel 2005 col titolo Michael Rabin: America’s Virtuoso Violinist, nella quale si può trovare una dettagliata analisi dei problemi psicologici di cui l’ artista soffriva. Interessante a questo proposito è anche il seguente articolo scritto nel 1971 per il New York Times dalla pianista Beatrice Berg, con interessanti particolari raccolti durante un colloquio personale con il violinista.
“The Rise, Fall and Rise of Rabin By BEATRICE BERG “:
When he was 27, the cockiness was cone. He had a nervous breakdown. Now he is 35 and slimmed down, and I am asking him about the crackup that has been gossiped about in the music world since 1963. He says: “I was lucky I came out of it. It was really just dumb luck that I somehow knew how to find people to help me, to talk to. The first doctor I went to an analyst – was right for me. I found him through an old family friend who is a lawyer. I only stopped playing concerts for seven months. The first year of therapy is the most difficult, so I thought it would be wise to stop playing for half a season and see what would happen. Even during the 1963-64 season I had 21 concerts, By 1965-66 I was back to a full load of 50 or 60, and have been ever since. I can’ t understand how people got the impression that I didn’ t play for three or four years. I was never in a straitjacket. I never went crazy. I was never in a mental institution. Could you believe it, after eight years I still hear about out-of-town symphony managers who say they’ ve heard I was sick for such a long time that they want to wait a little longer before I play with their orchestras to be sure I’ m okay? How long do you have to go on playing for not feeling well?” For a while he gazed silently at the Hudson River and New Jersey through the wall-to-wall windows of his studio apartment in the vast complex of buildings west or Lincoln Center. Then like started to talk again about grappling with the emotional and musical problems of his post-prodigy days. “It was a difficult and sad time. I call it my Blue Period.”
He now seems to be in his Rose Period. “I’ m functioning better than ever. I feel today that as a musician and as a person I’ m starting another period of growth. I’ m getting the kind of kick out of music that I never did before. I want to go on stage and try to convey to the people my feelings through music. I want to try to give them the joy I’ m getting from music.” And audiences and critics are responding to his brilliance as they did when he first burst into prominence. Reviewing his New York recital last February, The Times’ s critic spoke of it as “a performance that glittered all the way through.”
An auspicious time, then, for “the people”-and especially trade unionists-to feel the joy of music as purveyed by Rabin, who will be one of four soloists and three conductors participating in the precedent-breaking venture called “Experience in Music.” This is a nine-concert series (people-priced at $6 for two concerts plus a guided tour of Lincoln Center)
As a cooperative venture of the Philharmonic Society and the New York City Central Labor Council AFL-CIO, the series marks the first time the two organizations have joined to bring orchestral concerts to communities and union halls.
With Aaron Copland conducting, Rabin will play the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 in the first of the programs on Thursday, June 17, in a community center at Co-Op City, a mass of apartment towers rising like obelisks in the Bronx flatlands on and beyond the former site of Freedom land, the amusement park where the only music heard in the past was the oom-pah-pah of calliopes. On June 18 this program will be repeated at the Electric Industries Center in Queens, and on June 23-for people who want to hear the music on its home grounds-at Philharmonic Hall.
Rabin says. “It’ s going to be fun taking music to the neighborhoods. It gives the orchestra, the conductors and the soloists the feeling that besides just making music, we are perhaps also developing a future audience. I’ m a natural to be in the project the first week. I’ m a New Yorker and a Philharmonic baby. I used to play in the sandboxes in Riverside Park and ride my bike on Riverside Drive. My father, George Rabin, who is also a born New Yorker, was a violinist in the orchestra for 43 years. These will be my 82nd, 83rd and 84th appearances with the Philharmonic. With an orchestra like that, good God, it’ s such a pleasure!”
The Philharmonic baby remembers that when he finished his debut performance of the Paganini First in 1951 and the applause came thundering in, he took his bow and turned to shake hands with the conductor. “But Mitropoulos ran off the podium to the third stand of the first violins where my father was sitting and he made him stand up and he shook my father’ s hand. Mitropoulos was a beautiful person. He was my god.”
To Rabin, the most astonishing thing about having been a child prodigy is that he managed to survive it. “In the prodigy years, the eyes aren’ t open because everyone else sees for you. In hindsight I can say it was a horrible time to go through. But when I was going through it, It was a ball. Everyone coddled me. I was spoiled rotten.
“When you’ re no longer a child prodigy, you continue on because you’ re expected to. But then you have to shape up or ship out. In the years, say, from 16 to 26, everyone in the music field starts to pull you apart. They say ‘He’ s not a mature artist. He plays fast and loud and Paganini all the time and he’ s too young to play Beethoven and Brahms.’ In your mid-twenties you do play Beethoven and Brahms and some people say ‘Better he should play Paganini.’ There comes a point where your thoughts and soul and heart have to develop to the next stage. You’ re becoming a man and you’re thinking about finishing high school and being called down for the army physical. And you get an awareness of the Internal Revenue department,” he said with a rueful laugh. “For me the big change came when I was around 18. I started to question my teacher.”
Since Michael was 9 years old his teacher has been, and still is, the legendary Ivan Galamian of Juilliard, whose pupils include many of the most illustrious violin virtuosi playing today. “Galamian would say, ‘I think you should do it this way,’ and I’ d say ‘Why?’
I have four private students now and they question me in the same way. It’ s a very difficult time in life whether one is a performer or not. Every kid at that age wants to run away, quit school, rebel and yell and scream.”
Michael didn’ t yell and scream, but he did develop a nervous stomach and a morbid fear about falling off the edge of the stage. He began withdrawing from people. “You think that perhaps people don’t like you, and you become a semi-recluse. When you start to have problems like that, people don’t want to know you, and this increases the loneliness.” The psychiatric diagnosis was “disassociative reaction.” I think that means you become so preoccupied with your new and incorrect reactions that you actually disassociate yourself from what’s real. You get to the point where you either have to do something about it or quit the human race.”
Michael opted for staying with the human race. “I don’ t know win there’ s all this hush about people admitting they’ re seeing an analyst or a therapist. When you finally decide to go into therapy I think it’ s reason to celebrate, not to whisper about, You fall down and break your arm. You go to a doctor to have the bone set, right? Okay, you fall over an emotional problem and you have an emotional wound. You go to a doctor to have that set”. In addition to bandaging Michael’ s psychic wounds, his doctor bandaged his nervous stomach wounds with a drug called “Milpath,” a specific for “the beginning of an ulcer.” This led to several newspaper articles which used the dread phrases “drug addiction” and “accidental overdose.” “I remember being absolutely wild when I read that. I called my lawyer and asked if I could sue, because they completely misrepresented what I said, but he advised me not to. What’ s the expression when you have a drug problem having ‘a monkey on your back’? The drug problem isn’ t the monkey on my back. It’ s the people who still like to talk about it. The only drug in this house is Excedrin for the number 12 headache.”
The all-too-obvious question for a former child prodigy-especially a Jewish child prodigy-is what role his mother played in his rise, fall and rise. To this Rabin’s answer is: “The idea that if you’ re not well emotionally, you must hate your mother, has been overdone to the point where it’ s a not very intelligent joke. I realize that my mother created problems for me that she was unaware of. So did my father and my older sister. But I created problems for them. When I started to play the violin at the age of 8, my father was in the Philharmonic. They didn’t earn the kind of money they do today, and my parents gave up a lot for me. Jewish mothers-not only of sons, but of Jewish princesses are a special breed. They will kill themselves for their children. I don’ t have to go through the ‘Portnoy’ s Complaint’ thing. Philip Roth said it better than I can. But I can tell you very simply and honestly that if it hadn’t been for my Jewish mother, with her pushing and cajoling and her knowledge of music, I wouldn’t be a concert violinist today because I’m not as aggressive as she is. She’s a pianist and a Juilliard graduate, and she taught there and played concerts, and in our house there was music from the day I was born. When I was learning repertory as a child she would play the concertos with me, so when I started to rehearse with symphony orchestras I already knew what was going on.”
I reminded him of an enthusiastic New York limes notice of his recital debut at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 24, 1950, a year before he soloed with the Philharmonic. The review ended with this caution: “… it is to be hoped that he will not be rushed into a concert career at the expense of his natural growth into artistry.” Michael said unequivocally, “My parents did push me to practice but they never pushed me to play concerts too soon. Needless to say, before my therapy it was convenient to blame everything on my parents. But as a result of therapy, I see my emotional hang-ups and strengths in a much healthier light. I’ m closer than ever to my parents and I have a real, true friendship with my sister. She used to he jealous because my mother looked after me more. I was jealous because she could go to school like normal kids – I had a tutor for the last two years of high school. We used to fight about petty nothings, but now I can talk to her about anything, and I feel more free with her – as well as with almost everyone else – than I ever did before.”
For Rabin, music is inextricably tied up with his feelings and what he describes as “awareness of one’s reactions to people and even to inanimate objects.” He said,“ To me, the violin is a singing, vocal instrument and music is basically an emotional experience. For example, I’ ve played in Finland four times, and the last time in the dead of winter. The harbor was frozen over and the weather was gray and overcast. The Sibelius Violin Concerto starts with the strings tremolo and the violin has the first theme. It’ s a long and very dry theme. Suddenly, from my hotel room, I saw this vast, icy emptiness. And I realized, it’ s right there in the music!
“Look at those tall apartments across the Hudson.” He pointed with his long violinist’ s fingers. “They weren’ t there when I moved here in 1963. I watched them blast out the earth and trucks came and carried the earth away. I found that a very emotional thing. You can *hear it in the Beethoven Quartets-how the earth is being eaten up by the stupidity of the people living on it. I hear that sometimes in the music of Prokofiev and the Russians who killed themselves, like Tchaikovsky and Borodin.”
We’ re getting morose again. Then Rabin says, “To me, music is .a whole way of life. I feel very privileged that I’m a musician, and I believe a good one. Most people I know aren’t doing what they want to do. I can’ t think of anything I’ d rather do than be a musician. To take it even a step more beautifully, I can’t think of any Instrument I’ d rather play than the violin.”
We’ re upbeat again, so I ask him about love and marriage and whether he has a girl friend. ‘Too many,” he says. “I could get married tonight if I wanted to, but I’m still square or romantic enough to wait to meet the girl I’ ll get bopped on the head by. I hope it’ ll happen.”
Inevitably, we got back to music, and Rabin said, ‘The thing I’ m sorriest about today is that I’ m not recording now. It’s a shame, because I’ ve hit a certain peak. I recorded for six years, between the ages of 19 and 25. I often say with bitterness that when I die at 70, they’ ll bring out these old Angel and Capitol records ‘in memoriam.’
Il grandissimo Isaac Stern ricordava così Michael Rabin durante un’ intervista del maggio 1995 per France Musique.
Rabin to me was the greatest American talent in 50 years. Extraordinary control of the violin and a rare musical perception. George Szell considered him beyond compare as the greatest violin talent he had encountered in thirty years. I heard him two years after his debut. His stage presence was tremendous. We are greatly unaware of the circumstances of his death. This was a great loss because there were very few like him. He was much more precocious than I. His teacher Ivan Galamian taught him a lot about sound production, vibrato and bow technique. He had an absolutely perfect intonation; he played into the string with the bow but also with his [left-hand] fingers. I had ever heard such perfection since Heifetz. His playing was thrilling, not remote. He was very famous very young, no doubt too quickly pushed in his career by his parents or by his teachers. That is why he encountered personal problems. He was not happy, but one did not sense that in his playing.
Michael Rabin fu senza dubbio il massimo talento nella generazione dei violinisti nati tra la metà degli anni Venti e l’ inizio degli anni Trenta, insieme a Josef Hassid (1923 – 1950) e Boris Goldstein (1922 – 1987). Di Hassid, uno dei migliori allievi del leggendario Carl Flesch e morto giovanissimo, Fritz Kreisler ebbe a dire che uno come lui nasce ogni duecento anni mentre di Heifetz ne nasce uno ogni cento. Per quanto riguarda Goldstein, la cui carriera fu di fatto ostacolata dai problemi con il regime sovietico che alla fine lo costrinsero nel 1974 a emigrare in Germania, è noto il giudizio entusiastico datone da Yehudi Menuhin dopo averlo ascoltato in concerto durante una sua tournée in Unione Sovietica. Purtroppo la discografia di Hassid comprende solo una manciata di pezzi brevi, dai quali risulta comunque un’ espressività davvero straordinaria. Quella di Goldstein, sebbene più cospicua, è ugualmente abbastanza limitata. Di Rabin possediamo invece un numero di registrazioni abbastanza rilevante per un artista scomparso in giovane età e che dopo il 1959 non incise più dischi. Questo è appunto uno degli LP incisi per la Angel Records. Si tratta del Concerto di Mendelssohn registrato nel 1957 con la Philharmonia Orchestra diretta da Sir Adrian Boult.
Qui di seguito, una registrazione radiofonica abbastanza rara del Concerto N° 3 di Camille Saint Säens, effettuata a Stuttgart il 4 ottobre 1962. Michael Rabin è accompagnato dalla Sudwestfunks Sinfonieorchester diretta da Ernest Bour.
Come terzo ascolto, ecco un video registrato durante una della apparizioni televisive di Rabin ai Bell Telephone Concerts, nel 1962. Il violinista esegue due brani di Fritz Kreisler, Caprice Viennois e Le tambourin chinois, con la Bell Telephone Houer Orchestra diretta da Donald Voorhees
Da questi ascolti risulta indiscutibile che siamo di fronte a un virtuoso di levatura storica. La musicalità, il senso del rubato e il fraseggio ampio, ricchissimo di respiro melodico sono quelli dell’ esecutore capace di far cantare veramente il suo strumento. La tecnica appare davvero sbalorditiva, soprattutto nei brani di Kreisler. La condotta dell’ arco è di eccezionale purezza, la realizzazione dei trilli rivela una souplesse davvero da virtuoso di classe eccelsa. Come nei casi citati in apertura dell’ articolo, anche per Rabin c’ è davvero da rimpiangere il fatto che le sue travagliate vicende esistenziali e la sua morte prematura gli abbiano impedito di raggiungere una maturità artistica che avrebbe sicuramente prodotto risultati straordinari. In ogni caso, questi ascolti e il resto del lascito discografico di Rabin, purtroppo oggi difficilmente reperibile perché non più ristampato, sono una testimonianza attendibile e sufficientemente completa del valore davvero storico di questo artista.