Orfeo the enterprising
German label have released a new recording
of two rare chamber works from the Russian
Romantic composer Anton Rubinstein.
It is always good to have the opportunity
to hear new releases of lesser-known
Anton Rubinstein was
a child prodigy as a pianist and undertook
his first overseas concert tour aged
eleven. In Paris he made the acquaintance
of Chopin and Liszt. The next year a
more extended tour took Rubinstein to
England, Holland, Germany and Sweden
and in time his popularity and prowess
as a pianist rivalled that of Liszt.
Rubinstein’s rapturously acclaimed playing
had been crowned by success after success
and met the approbation of composers
as eminent as Chopin, Mendelssohn and
After several years
of diligent study in St. Petersburg,
Rubinstein was said to have appeared
as a fully-fledged artist with a large
portfolio of compositions, experiencing
enthusiastic audiences and willing publishers.
Rubinstein’s compositions were performed
throughout Europe by eminent people
like Liszt, Mahler, Saint-Saëns,
Von Bülow, Brahms and many other
Rubinstein over the
years spent much time abroad using his
numerous visits to many of the world’s
greatest cities not only to give concerts
but to promote his own compositions.
According to a provisional list drawn
up in 1889, this numbered 146 individual
compositions in various genres, including
no fewer than nineteen secular and sacred
operas, twenty-two large-scale orchestral
works including six symphonies, five
piano concertos, two cello concertos,
one violin concerto, twenty chamber
works and literally hundreds of solo
piano works and songs. Music writer
Gervase Hughes holds the view that Rubinstein’s
demanding life as a concert pianist
invariably meant that composing was
a side-line for him.
In spite of Rubinstein’s
successes he was by no means immune
to criticism. Strongly influenced by
the music of Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn,
Chopin, Liszt et al, it is not
surprising that Rubinstein was perhaps
the first true ‘European’ in Russian
musical life. It has been said that
posterity’s main accusation against
Rubinstein is his persistence in attempting
to emulate the classical models and
traditions of Mendelssohn and Schumann.
Without denying either his own origins
or his country’s musical traditions,
he sought to reform Russia’s musical
life but hoped to do so in a very different
way to that of the radical nationalistic
aspirations of the group of composers
Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov
and Mussorgsky, known as the ‘Mighty
Handful’. The ‘Mighty Handful’ showered
Rubinstein with scorn for not promoting
or assimilating patriotic Russian national
characteristics into his musical style.
It has been said however that some of
Rubinstein’s scores, towards the end
of his life, very occasionally display
typical ‘Russian’ themes, as those used
by Balakirev and Mussorgsky.
greatest contribution to Russian musical
life was not related to performing or
composing, but to the formation of the
Russian Music Society and as co-founder
of the St. Petersburg Conservatory of
Music, serving two terms as Principal.
As a composer Rubinstein’s
music divided opinion and was highly
esteemed in many circles and condemned
in others. Following his death Rubinstein’s
reputation as a composer faded and his
music swiftly drifted into virtual obscurity.
musical language inhabits a world far
removed from the traditional ‘Russian
spirit’ and is closer to western Romanticism.
Generally the music follows the tradition
that stems from Mendelssohn to Carlo
Maria von Weber to Chopin to Schumann;
without ever achieving the same quality.
As a result the two chamber works included
on this Orfeo release contain that ‘Russian’
element really only on a subtext level.
The main discernible elements are discursive,
grand symphonic gestures; relatively
rare in chamber music. It is occasionally
mentioned that Rubinstein’s works display
a pronounced sense of drama, betraying
his love of composing for the stage;
although this is not an attribute that
I could ascribe to these two chamber
Corder said of Rubinstein’s chamber
music that he was, "apt to give
the piano an undue prominence in it."
In these scores, one finds it hard to
disagree with Ignaz Jan Paderewski,
the Polish pianist, composer and statesman
when he stated that, "his compositions
were rather carelessly made. Almost
every one starts with a beautiful idea,
but it is not worked out. He had not
the necessary concentration or patience
for a composer."
At the time of writing
I have not been able to discover definitive
dates for these two scores; sources
seem to contradict each other. The four
movement Octet in D major
for piano, winds and strings, Op. 9
has an early opus number and I have
seen it described as a student work
and also as a reworking of an earlier
The score unquestionably
comes across as an immature early work.
Rubinstein gives the piano an exceedingly
dominant role with the seven other instruments,
in effect, merely offering light accompaniment.
There is far too little substance in
the score, the themes are unmemorable
and poorly developed and at nearly forty
minutes it is too protracted for its
The opening allegro
sets off in the grand fashion of
a piano concerto and at thirteen minutes
seems prolonged. The vivace movement
commences like a piano sonata and is
perhaps the most successful. It is evocative
of a nature scene, complete with the
sounds and movement of birds and wildlife.
In the andante the mood changes
to one of general calm and peace, only
interrupted by several brief episodes
of restlessness. The final movement
meanders its course as if weary and
lost and contains plenty of rather repetitive
passagework for the piano.
in F major, for piano and winds,
Op. 55 designed in four movements
was probably written in 1855. The work
has been described by musicologist Frederick
Corder as "…almost a Pianoforte
Concerto in disguise." That
said, especially in the first two movements,
there is undoubtedly a better balance
between the piano and the accompanying
instruments than that of the Octet.
However the material is undistinguished
and the score follows Rubinstein’s tendency
to be overlong.
The opening allegro
movement is bright and joyous. At nearly
ten minutes it is rather too extended
for its material. In the scherzo
the appealing lyricism is welcome but
little happens and interest soon wanes.
The slow third movement breathes an
air of relaxation. There is considerable
activity for the piano part particularly
in the concluding half of the movement.
In the vigorous concluding movement
the piano is again very prominent. The
composer gets carried way and episodes
of the movement are reminiscent of a
piano concerto. Again there is a lack
of substance and at nearly twelve minutes
it outstays its welcome.
There are no undiscovered
gems of chamber music repertoire to
be discovered here. The scores could
be described as mediocre and lacklustre.
Consortium Classicum comprises fine
musicians but their artistry cannot
transform this music. These are uninspiring
scores wonderfully performed with commendable
spirit and genuine integrity. The sound
is acceptable if rather lacking in detail
and over bright in the forte
In an alternative account
of the Piano Quintet the playing
from pianist Felicja Blumental and the
New Philharmonia Wind Ensemble is accomplished,
refined and certainly stylish. A touch
more spontaneity might have been preferred
to have ensured a more comprehensively
satisfying reading. Blumental’s 1979
London recording is available on Brana
Records BR0019, with the coupling of
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Quintet.
Although I would have
liked to have reported otherwise, there
is nothing to get worked up about here.
Rare chamber music for the keenest explorers