From the moment of his arrival in Lodz, Poland, master pianist Arthur Rubinstein seemed to breathe life into the gray, industrial city of his birth. Revered among concert pianists, Rubinstein, 88, was making his first visit to Poland in 10 years—and his first to Lodz in 16—to give a recital on the 60th anniversary of the Lodz Philharmonia.

Rubinstein, who lives in Paris, is notoriously anti-Soviet, but he was feeling charitable toward his Communist fatherland. The new Warsaw government has shown a degree of independence from the U.S.S.R., and Polish anti-Semitism, which flared during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, has slackened. And of course the barrage of entreaties from friends and colleagues also helped to draw the maestro home.

In Lodz he rehearsed only one day before the concert. "Me," he said, "I never work. Memory and self-assurance are the greatest gifts in the world." Entering the rehearsal hall beneath a garish Marxist sign, Rubinstein walked carefully across the stage, shielding his eyes from the television lights. He nodded to conductor Henryk Czyz, and with the first notes of Chopin's Second Piano Concerto, he began staring majestically into space. Years seemed to fall away from Rubinstein as he struck the keys. "Every time I play, it's the first time," he said. As the rehearsal went on, he threw himself into Beethoven's Fifth Concerto, grimacing, boyishly punching the air with his fists, bouncing on his bench and occasionally chattering in Polish. At the end visitors crowded around to prattle with the maestro in three of the seven languages in which he is fluent—English, French and Polish. (The others are Russian, German, Italian and Spanish. Something of a Casanova, Rubinstein acknowledges that his languages were improved considerably by love affairs with two talkative multilingual women.)

The affection shown him in Lodz touched Rubinstein. "The Polish people are brave and vivacious and intelligent," he beamed. "I am in love with the country of my birth. And," he added, "what would I do without the women? Unfortunately you cannot count on Polish men, but the women will never let you down." (Later he would refine his appreciation: "Polish girls have good legs. French girls are too thin.")

Rubinstein's schedule in Lodz would have staggered many men a fraction his age. When not rehearsing, he dined out, met with relatives, spoke with dignitaries, toured the town and accommodated interviewers. ("I won't play for television, in spite of some very big offers. I imagine a fellow listening to me while shaving, and his wife in the kitchen saying, 'Turn that damn music down.' ") Before leaving his dressing room after rehearsal, Rubinstein unselfconsciously called for his hair spray. "I am never sleepy," he claimed with a wink, "but sometimes my hair gets sleepy and falls down."

Opening the door, Rubinstein found a pack of young women waiting for him. They pursued him to his car, applauding all the way. Rubinstein blew kisses. "When I was young," he said, "I used to have successes with women because I was young. Now I have successes with women because I am old. Middle age was the hard part."

In one of the most poignant moments of the visit, Rubinstein found the drab courtyard of the apartment building where he lived until the age of 4. Gazing about wistfully, he recalled, "My three sisters were over there, by the balcony, and we four boys slept up by the stairway." He strode out onto a busy street. "There used to be a candy store here," he noted, his memory extraordinary after 84 years, "and whenever I would pass by, the women inside would offer me candy in French." Have the people of Lodz changed, he was asked. "If people didn't change, life wouldn't be worth it. I would immediately suicide myself."

Rubinstein, unlike other, more frugal pianists, gives up to 100 concerts a year and is an extraordinary physical specimen. The sharpness of his mind is every bit as impressive. He rehearses only once before a recital, rarely using the score even when he has not played it for a decade. "I can read a sonata on a plane," he says, "then play it the same evening without seeing the music. I can hear it."

"He never practices," said an old friend and onetime director of Warsaw Radio, Roman Jaczinski, "yet he hardly makes any mistakes. Arthur loves life so much he finds it abominable to sit at the piano working."

Rubinstein explained: "I would rather hang myself than work the way Paderewski did—16 or 17 hours of practice a day. I'm glad when I make mistakes," he added puckishly. "Then I can say to the audience, 'Aha, I got your money anyway. You'll just have to take me as I am.' "

Performance night in Lodz, the audience did—deliriously. As Rubinstein walked onstage, the audience rose in an ovation before he had even reached the piano. When the concert was over, they stood again in thunderous acclaim, showering the stage with red and white carnations, Poland's national colors. It was a brave display of independence, in defiance of the ritual in most rigidly Communist nations of honoring performers with red carnations only. Rubinstein climaxed the evening with a single encore, the Grande Polonaise—an emotional, nationalist composition which is frowned upon as "revisionist" by the Soviet government. Rubinstein played it with a fury that turned his face crimson. He left the stage to the chant of "Sto lat, sto lat,"—"May he live 100 years."

As autograph-hunters and well-wishers packed the backstage loge, Rubinstein joked, "With inflation these days, I wish they had made it 150." Afterward, at a quiet dinner at the Actors' Club with old friends, Rubinstein appeared not drained, but revitalized. "My favorite wines," he said with elegant snobbery, "are Latour 1937 and Dom Perignon among champagnes. I would rather go to prison than drink Chianti. It is pure vinegar."

A young, beautiful woman gravitated toward Rubinstein almost magnetically. "I am proud of my career, of my age, of my health," he boasted playfully, "but above all I am proud that my wife is still jealous of me. If my wife were here now," he added, gazing at his stunning neighbor, "You would not be."

Rubinstein left Lodz next day for two concerts in Spain. "I loved this trip," he said. "I didn't think the Polish people would spoil me so much."