Anton Rubinstein was a child prodigy who became one of the
world’s most gifted pianists, an eminent composer, a conductor, a writer,
a teacher and a co-founder and principal of the St. Petersburg Conservatorium.
As a composer he was prolific and admired rather than being influential.
Composing in most genres his output included 6 symphonies, several concertante
works for piano and orchestra, numerous chamber music and solo piano music.
Rubinstein was revered in his time but now his music is infrequently performed
and seems unfashionable.
As a young boy he undertook his first European tour
concert tour and met Franz Liszt, in Paris. Rubinstein spent much of
his life travelling as a concert pianist and conducting visiting England
on several occasions and also toured America. I feel that this aspect
of Rubinstein’s life is important to highlight as his cosmopolitan lifestyle
undoubtedly influenced and coloured his compositions.
Music writer Frederick Corder expresses the opinion
in Grove that, "Rubinstein’s playing was not only remarkable for
the absolute perfection of his technique, in which he was the only rival
Liszt ever had, but there was the fire and the soul which only a true
and genial composer can possess." Corder also had a high regard
for Rubinstein’s piano compositions stating that they, "are far
superior to most of their class, his writing for the instrument being
enviably most brilliant, as is but natural in so great a pianist."
With regard to the music presented on this CD, Charles
Barber states in the booklet notes that, "Here on the instrument
to which he was born may be heard some of his most idiomatic and powerful
conceptions. Though of manic difficulty, they almost bear touches of
maturity and reflection which contradict those who claim, as, with Mendelssohn,
it all came too easily."
There are few discs of Rubinstein’s solo piano music
available and it is pleasing to have a new release of his works. However
these performances were recorded eight years ago and must have been
hiding away in the vaults until now.
The six etudes or studies Op. 23 are early Rubinstein
works composed between 1849 and 1850. These etudes are not mere technical
exercises. He wrote them to display poetical and dramatic scenes; like
a Constable landscape painting in the manner of Alkan, Schumann and
Chopin. With the etudes Rubinstein certainly examines the possibilities
of the piano. The Russian soloist Alexander Paley is tested to the limit
too, with rapid-fire staccatos to fiendishly difficult prestos to wondrous
arpeggios. Paley is unfortunately not always up to the test of these
difficult man-trap like etudes, particularly in the first and second
etudes where there are several examples of untidy playing.
The six barcarolles which Rubinstein wrote over a 32
year period are very attractive examples of the style as written by
Chopin and Mendelssohn. An enthusiastic Paley seems happier playing
these barcarolles than with the etudes and gives a fine performance
with thoughtful and sensitive playing throughout the ebb and flow of
However it almost seems pointless writing about the
quality of the compositions and Paley’s performances when the sound
quality is the stumbling block. All the fortissimo passages at the extreme
ends of Paley’s Steinway keyboard cause the sound to badly blur. Furthermore
the dynamic range is too wide … and fiddling about with the volume control
becomes tedious. No wonder these performances have been hiding away
for eight years!