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Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Symphony No. 4 "Dramatic" (1874)
Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Košice)/Robert Stankovsky
Recorded in the House of Arts, Košice, Slovakia. 25-31 March 1990 DDD
Originally issued as Marco Polo 8.223319
NAXOS 8.555979 [65:44]


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Anton Rubinstein first gained attention as a child virtuoso at the piano. Having made his concert debut at the age of ten, he would go on to rival Liszt, and played many concert tours throughout France, Austria, Scandinavia and England, where he performed for Queen Victoria. Upon the death of his father in 1846, he remained in Europe, settling in Pressburg (modern day Bratislava), while his family returned to Russia. He fell on financial hard times and eked out a living teaching and playing until good fortune came upon him in the form of recognition by a member of the Russian Imperial Family. Having found favor in the eyes of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, a German and sister-in-law to the Tsar, he would go on at her encouragement to found the now famous St. Petersburg Conservatory. His brother, Nicolay would do likewise in Moscow, and the two institutions would go on to launch some of the greatest careers in nineteenth century Russian music, including Tchaikovsky’s.

Rubinstein was a prolific composer and was influenced by the formality of the German school. Later in life, his music would fall out of favor with the younger generation who espoused a more nationalistic style of composition. Remembered today chiefly for the Melodie in F for solo piano, recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in his many chamber works, piano pieces, symphonies and operas.

Naxos have begun of late to release older items from their more expensive Marco Polo label. This is a welcome thing, as much of the Marco Polo repertoire is as adventuresome as the great explorer himself, and one could be justifiably hesitant to drop the high dollars. (Their acquisition of the now defunct Collins Classics catalogue is also a great boon to music lovers!)

After a careful and open-minded listen to this recording, I must confess that I am left rather uninterested in both this work and this performance. Although there is a great deal of potential here, the overlong movements seem to ramble on for lack of real thematic ideas, and on the whole the work lacks structure. Unlike Bruckner, whose lengthy expositions hold the listener’s attention by means of their taut control of tension and release, Rubinstein presents a series of gestures which are at times trite, at times disjunct and sadly, often just plain dull.

There are hints of great things to come in the orchestration, and those who are familiar with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works will be able to take a look backwards and appreciate whence the younger composer’s technique came. Alas, we are not given anything of substance to latch onto, nor is it ever clear just what the composer is attempting to convey in a work which is rather ineptly titled "Dramatic."

The composer is given little aid by Robert Stankovsky’s rather purposeless reading. Although the Slovak State Philharmonic plays professionally, they are given no real sense of forward direction; rather, this seems to be more of a perfunctory reading, carried out with all the enthusiasm one might invest in a book report. Sluggish tempi coupled with a marked lack of rhythmic bite serve only to drag an already awkward score further into the mud.

Recorded sound is adequate, although reserved. We get nothing seat rumbling or earth shattering. The program notes by Keith Anderson are outstanding.

If you are dying to hear some obscure Russian music, then you might find this to your liking, but a special trip to the record store for this one would be a waste of gasoline.

Kevin Sutton

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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