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Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Quintet for piano, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon, in F major, op. 55 (1855)
Nikolay Andreyevich RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Quintet for piano, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon, in B flat, op. posth. (1876)
Felicja Blumental (piano)
Members of the New Philharmonia Wind Ensemble, London
Recorded at Chelsea, London, August 1979. AAD
BRANA RECORDS BR0019 [60:38]


Brana Records have released two late-Romantic Russian piano quintets previously recorded in London in 1979 now making a welcome return to the chamber catalogue. The two works feature the excellent playing of the eminent Polish born pianist Felicja Blumental who died in 1991.

Both Rubinstein and Rimsky-Korsakov opted for something different from the more usual format of quintet for piano and string quartet instead composing quintets for the unusual combination of piano and woodwind. These are separated by twenty one years.

As co-founders of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and Professor of Composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory respectively, Rubinstein and Rimsky-Korsakov had a profound influence on the subsequent generation of Russian composers. Rubinstein was a more cosmopolitan composer, outspoken in his views and seen to antagonise other Russian nationalist composers, namely ‘The Five’ of which Rimsky-Korsakov was a member.

Rubinstein, as well as being a most prolific composer, was one of the greatest pianists of the nineteenth century. In the genre of chamber music he wrote several works for string quartet, violin and cello sonatas and also a sonata for viola and piano (a particularly valuable piece of repertoire for viola players). Rubinstein’s Quintet in F major, Op. 55 from 1855 is one of two that he composed.

In this four movement work Rubinstein demonstrates his expertise in instrumentation, composing melodies that augment the sonorities of each instrument. He partners them with skill, dividing motifs to create contrapuntal themes, writing for the piano as if it were an orchestral part and at other times, as solo instrument shimmering in the background. Like Schumann, Rubinstein wrote predominantly for the piano and at times, this quintet has been said to sound like a concerto for the instrument. The playing from the pianist Felicja Blumental and the New Philharmonia Wind Ensemble is accomplished and refined and certainly stylish. A touch more spontaneity might have been preferred from the players to have ensured a more comprehensively satisfying reading.

The classy three movement Quintet by the great Rimsky-Korsakov has a more traditional feel than that of Rubinstein. It may even come as a surprise to some that Rimsky-Korsakov wrote chamber music, but when the Russian Musical Society announced a contest for a chamber work in 1876, he wrote two works, his Sextet for Strings and this Quintet. The prize was awarded to a Trio composed by Eduard Frantsovitch Napravnik (1839-1916) and Rimsky-Kosakov’s quintet was overlooked. It is rumoured that Napravnik had the good fortune of an excellent sight-reader by the name of Leschetizky to play his work and that Rimsky-Korsakov’s Quintet had a far less-capable performer who clumsily struggled through the music.

The first movement Allegro is similar in style to that of Beethoven’s early compositions. The repetition of its main theme makes this movement particularly memorable. However, it is the melancholic second movement Andante in which Rimsky-Korsakov uncovers his Russian nationalism. The beautiful dance-like final movement is worth the wait. It develops into a more serious section for solo piano, but features some solo passages for the horn, flute and clarinet, interspersed with rippling piano passages. Rimsky-Korsakov also writes a virtuoso moment for the bassoon which previously had a more rhythmic purpose rather than melodic. The wonderful dance theme returns to close proceedings. The talented players of the New Philharmonia Wind Ensemble and pianist Felicja Blumental give an adroit interpretation with heaps of lyricism and the right amount punch.

In conclusion the Rimsky Quintet is for me the far superior score. Rubinstein’s work doesn’t make the same impact but should not be underestimated and does reward the listener with repeated plays.

The sound quality is good and the release is attractively presented. A fine re-release from Brana Records which is well worth exploring and should bring significant rewards to the lover of late-Romantic chamber music.

Michael Cookson



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