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Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Orchestral works: Volume 2
Ouverture triomphale Op.43 (c.1860) [12.40]
Sérénade russe No.1 Op.93 (arr. Karl Müller-Berghaus) (c.1875) [7.43]
Valse caprice (arr. Karl Müller-Berghaus) [6.44]
Trot de cavalerie (arr. ?) [2.46]
Symphony No.2 ‘Ocean’ Op.42 (1851) [40.10]
Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra/George Hanson
Rec. Stadthalle, Wuppertal, Germany on 21-24 July 2003
MDG 335 1240-2 [70.38]

 

The name of Anton Rubinstein is not so unfamiliar these days with much of his music covered on CD. Marco Polo produced his five piano concertos and six symphonies as well as two volumes of piano music played by Joseph Banowetz. There’s his violin concerto, ballet music from his operas The Demon, Feramors, and Nero, and a complete version of The Demon, while Orbis musicae have produced Lieder and duets for soprano and mezzo-soprano. MDG themselves have begun a series, the first of which (MDG 335 1165-2) featured his cello concerto, Don Quixote (also on Marco Polo) and ballet music from The Demon. There is, of course, plenty more music to be explored among the 17 operas, and he wrote a number of oratorios, string quartets, a piano quintet (recorded on the Abseits label), three violin sonatas and two cello sonatas, in addition to other chamber works including a fairly popular viola sonata. As a leading virtuoso of the piano he wrote a quantity of music for the instrument, such as sonatas, suites, serenades and other pieces, with the Melody in F achieving wide popularity. This second MDG CD features the original four-movement version of the Ocean symphony; three were subsequently added (two in 1863, a third in 1880) to form a giant seven-movement symphony available on Marco Polo (8.220449).

Anton Grigorevich Rubinstein, brother of the pianist and composer Nikolai Rubinstein (founder director of the Moscow Conservatory who cruelly snubbed Tchaikovsky in his student years), was a Russian pianist, composer and conductor. He was born in Vykhvatintsky on the Moldovan border, learned the piano from an early age, and made his first public appearance at the age of nine. He was taken to Paris, and in 1843, on Meyerbeer’s and Mendelssohn’s recommendations, to Berlin, where he studied theory with Siegfried Dehn. He then moved to Vienna for two years, where he briefly taught piano before returning to Russia in 1848 to work as a musician for the sister-in-law of the Tsar. He began to tour again as a pianist in the late 1850s, before settling in St Petersburg where he founded the first Conservatoire in Russia in 1862, his educational concepts forming the basis of state education in music. He also continued to make tours as a pianist and conductor of his own works (215 concerts in 239 days on a tour of the USA in 1872), and spent a short stint teaching in Dresden towards the end of his life, dying in Peterhof at the age of 65, having suffered from heart disease for some time.


Not to be confused with the great 20th century pianist Artur Rubinstein, Anton, an even greater performer in his time and a clear rival to Liszt and other great pianists of the 19th century, had a marked effect on the development of music in Russia. The Conservatories he and his brother established were not welcomed by the nationalist composers, who regarded them as a German intrusion, and as it happens the Rubinsteins were of German-Jewish extraction. As a composer Rubinstein was prolific, up to Op.119 in his own catalogue, but his technical facility told against him, so that by the time of his death his work was not properly valued by supporters of Russian musical nationalism (who also accused him of being subsumed by German influence). Rubinstein’s music was quite widely performed in his lifetime, but following his death it was largely ignored. Now there is something of a revival, and this is to be welcomed, though with the caveat that there’s a fair amount of chaff to be found amongst the wheat. Gustav Mahler said of him, ‘He is the thundering, but also very elegant gentleman from Petersburg who will tell you with grandeur and Slavic straightforwardness what’s on his mind. He comes straight to the point. A gentleman from Russia with a overwhelming enthusiasm for music. His opera, The Demon, is a great elaborate piece of music that belongs to the everlasting masterpieces of this century.’

The Ouverture triomphale of 1860, dedicated to Tsar Alexander II, follows the Second Symphony in the composer’s oeuvre, and has resonances of the style of the later 1812 overture by Tchaikovsky (1882) but laced with more national anthems including the Marseillaise and God Save the Queen, presumably in its Austrian origins. The latter is treated in a rather contrapuntal way, and it all ends in a triumphal militaristic apotheosis in which the orchestra’s percussion department (at least on this record) appear to imitate dustmen making their weekly call. The three orchestrated piano pieces have a Russian charm of their own to belie the accusation from the Mighty Handful that Rubinstein was nothing but a German stooge; their wistful or merry melodies could be nothing but Russian (albeit by Rubinstein’s contemporary German orchestrator Karl Müller-Burghaus). The Valse Caprice, more Johann Strauss than Chopin, despite some galumphing brass, also has more delicate wind writing. The Trot de Cavalerie is a three-minute Suppé-like Galop, a piece of fun. So much for the half hour of introductory curiosities before the heart of the disc, namely the Ocean symphony.

This work comes just at the beginning of what I tend to think of as a black hole in the history of the symphony, that quarter century between Schumann and Brahms, 1850-1876. Not that none was being written, just that in general they have not endured other than occasional performances and now recordings on the fringes. Bruch’s first two enjoyed a popularity according to Kretschmar, and he also included Rubinstein’s symphonies in his Führer durch en Konzertsaal (Guide to the Concert Hall). The Ocean symphony enjoyed remarkable success, with more than 200 performances documented among the 15 most played during the second half of the 19th century, competing with those of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. It is more a poetic picture rather than a programmatic symphony, though there are certainly musical clichés depicting wind and waves here and there, a scherzo which could have been inspired by the song and dance of a jolly tar, while the fact that it ended up as a seven-movement work inevitably led to the wrong conclusion that it became a musical portrait of the seven seas.

George Hanson’s full-blooded account with his Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra is convincing and well-paced despite some hard-driven tempi. The sound in the city’s town hall provides ambience and brightness, as well as fine balance. While the Ocean symphony might not secure a relaunch as a result, nevertheless it’s a work worth occasional revival.

Christopher Fifield

 



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