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Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Octet in D major for flute, clarinet, French-horn, violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano, Op. 9 [37:31]
Quintet in F major for flute, clarinet, French-horn, bassoon and piano, Op. 55 (1855) [38:58]
Consortium Classicum: Thomas Duis (piano); Robert Dohn (flute); Dieter Klöcker; (clarinet); Jan Schroeder (horn); Andreas Krecher (violin); Niklas Schwarz (viola); Armin Fromm (cello); Ulrich Schneider (double bass); Karl-Otto Hartmann (bassoon)
Recorded 17-20 March, 2002 at Tonstudio van Geest, Heidelberg, Germany
ORFEO C 422 041 A [76:46]


 

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 works.

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 Brahms.

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 renowned musicians.

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.

Ironically Rubinstein’s 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.

Rubinstein’s cosmopolitan 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 scores.

Musicologist Frederick 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 piano concerto.

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 material.

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.

Rubinstein’s Quintet 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 passages.

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 only.

Michael Cookson



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