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Anton Grigorievich RUBINSTEIN (1829 – 1894)
Collected Songs - Volume 1
A Scene from The Gypsies Op.78 (1868) [3:17]
The Night Op.44 (1860) [3:09]
The Prisoner Op.78 (1868) [3:30]
Song Op.78 (1868) [1:59]
The Singer Op.36 (1850) [2:37]
The Cloud Op.48 (1852) [2:50]
Angel Op.48 (1852) [3:39]
Hebrew Melody Op.78 (1868) [4:04]
Wish Op.8 (1850) [4:32]
The Dagger Op.36 (1850) [3:00]
The Mountain Tops Op.48 (1852) [3:00]
Five Songs from Serbian melodies Op.107 (1877) [11:44]
Serenade (1891) [3:46]
If You Love Op.101 (1877) [1:02]
The Dove and the Passer-by Op.48 (1852) [1:47]
If I only knew Op.101 (1877) [3:02]
Azra Op.32 (1856) [2:24]
Ballad (1891) [4:26]
Mila Shkirtil (mezzo); Mikhail Lukonin (baritone); Yuri Serov (piano)
rec. St. Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg, Russia, 22, 26 February 2007

Experience Classicsonline

When descriptions such as prodigy and genius get used on mediocre TV talent shows it is salutary to encounter the work of an artist who truly fits those descriptions. Certainly Anton Rubinstein was both prodigious and prodigal, and together with his brother Nikolai, his influence over the musical life of Russia in the latter half of the 19th century is hard to overestimate. Reading a list of his achievements in his sixty-five years is exhausting enough. In brief, he had a life-long career – he was 9 when he gave his first public concert – as a world class piano virtuoso to rival Liszt. He composed extensively including 14 operas and oratorios, 6 symphonies, 5 piano concertos, over 200 piano works and more than 170 song settings. He wrote essays and criticisms and founded and was director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music. This latter is especially significant in that the lessons were taught in Russian.
Curiously though his own music – perhaps because of the cosmopolitan itinerant nature of his existence - shows far less ‘Russian Nationalism’ than many of his contemporaries. Another clue to its relative obscurity today might lie in the comment made by his brother. When asked why he, Nikolai, had not composed more he responded that brother Anton “composed enough for three”. The New Grove makes the following comments too; “Rubinstein composed assiduously during all periods of his life. He was able, and willing, to dash off for publication half a dozen songs or an album of piano pieces with all too fluent ease in the knowledge that his reputation would ensure a gratifying financial reward for the effort involved” and “As Paderewski was later to remark, 'He had not the necessary concentration of patience for a composer....'”. I cannot claim to have a wide-ranging knowledge of his works but those that I do know have, if truth be told, always slightly disappointed. His large scale Symphony No.2 ‘Ocean’ promises much but remains steadfastly picturesque rather than epic as one hoped. The Piano Concerto No.4 which I encountered through one of Michael Ponti’s barn-storming Vox Turnabout LPs is much more engaging without being hugely individual. Perhaps after all it is about right and a true reflection of his stature as a composer that his only famous and enduring work is the piano piece Melody in F Op.3 No.1 which is one of those tunes everyone knows without being always able to place.
So it was with particular interest that I started listening to this disc which is titled volume 1. Assuming works of similar length that would imply another five or six volumes to include all 170 + songs mentioned previously. Northern Flowers have entrusted this disc to the excellent duo of pianist Yuri Serov and mezzo-soprano Mila Shkirtil. I enjoyed their performance on a recent disc of song cylces by Valery Gavrilin greatly and all the good opinions there are reinforced here. Particularly since they are joined by baritone Mikhail Lukonin who has a passionately vibrant and attractive voice which matches well with Shkirtil in the five attractive duets they sing. As in the Gavrilin recital Serov’s piano playing proves to be a model of neat attentive accompaniment. This surprised on a musical level given Rubinstein’s fame as a virtuoso pianist. Somehow I was expecting piano parts of a more dramatic illustrative nature. Probably my only partially negative comment on the performance aspect of this disc is that I would have preferred a more equal balance between voice and piano which might have helped create a sense of dramatic dialogue. The piano sound is in fact relatively badly recessed. I really do like Shkirtil’s voice which seems to me to have an ideal fusion of Slavic intensity and passion and a characteristically rich low register without the ‘matronly wobble’ of yesteryear. This is a young focused and flexible voice in superb condition. Lukonin’s baritone is possibly more of an acquired taste – he has a preference for a tight fast vibrato which can be somewhat unvaried. But the basic sound is distinctive and again superbly controlled.
The texts of the songs sung here are predominantly Russian. Rubinstein clearly knew his poets well, selecting major texts by Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy and Turgenev amongst others. All the more curious then that the actual music sounds so resolutely un-Russian. And this was the source of antagonism between Rubinstein and “The Mighty Handful” composers who felt he did not reflect his Russian heritage enough in his music. Thank goodness Northern Flowers have provided full English texts alongside Russian transliterations – unlike another disc of theirs recently. This allows the listener to follow the text more closely and see exactly how and where Rubinstein chooses to illuminate and illustrate the words. The opening song – a duet – is interesting in that it is called A Scene from The Gypsies and is a treatment of the same text that Rachmaninoff used in his first opera Aleko. Rubinstein’s version is positively polite with characters saying; “Cut me, or burn me, I hate you… I love another”. Each character waits dutifully for the other to finish singing. Rachmaninoff for all his youth has a far greater theatrical sense and a flamboyance which helps cover flaws; with Rubinstein we have fluency and facility. But elsewhere those are the attributes that contribute to the most successful songs. Without a doubt Rubinstein did have a melodic gift and was able to write instantly appealing attractive songs. Another of the duets – track 7 Angel Op.48 is a lovely example of this. The voices match each beautifully with Serov’s discreet piano allowing the voices to float with graceful ease. The serenity of the writing is both a strength and yet oddly a weakness too – the absence of drama giving the music a complacent quality. I can imagine this music gracing the soirées of middle class 19th century homes. Several times in their easy vocally grateful step-wise melodies I found myself thinking of Victorian-style songs of ‘moral uplift’. If I had to make a harsh judgement I would say the settings are not the equal of many of the texts. Interestingly the Hebrew Melody Op.78 [track 8] produces more fire in the composer’s belly. Does that have anything to do with his family’s enforced renunciation of their Jewish faith before he was five? Together with track 3 The Prisoner Op.78 these show Lukonin at his considerable best.
For those with a sweet musical tooth the duets are pretty irresistible. For a mezzo-soprano Shkirtil has a beautifully free and light upper register. Yes I know track 11 The Mountain Tops Op.48 is not exactly original but you would have to be rather hard-hearted not to be charmed by the performance here. In the cycle of Five Serbian Melodies Op.107 Shkirtil shows her great ability to shade and colour the music with real subtlety and nuance. All round these seem like more challenging songs, more wide-ranging musically and emotionally. The liner tells us that they date from a period of intense creativity, Rubinstein having recently resigned the directorship of the Conservatory. So clear is the extra ‘weight’ of these songs that it is hard not to concur with the Groves observation above that here is a composer with so much talent that it was too easy for him to dash off music to order. The sadness is that this short cycle reveals the real composer behind the easily achieved technique.
The final duet on the disc – track 19 The Dove and the Passer-by includes one of the few illustrative moments on the disc with the piano imitating a dove’s call. There is more of a dramatic dialogue between the voices unlike the homophonic Angel mentioned earlier. Four of the five duets recorded here come from a set of Twelve Duets Op.48 and certainly on the strength of the performances here they deserve investigating in full if only for their instant charm and melodic appeal. Lukonin is given the task of closing the recital with the Ballad – a setting of words by Turgenev. Unlike several of the essentially strophic songs this is more in the style of an extended lyrical recitative. The power of Lukonin’s vocal presence gives this a glowering impressive weight – this is the most overtly Russian music on the disc, in mood if not melodic inflection - a very powerful ending to a fascinating disc of intriguing music. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that Rubinstein would have produced more music of lasting worth if he had not divided his creative energies with such profligate abandon. But in this trio of performers he has found musicians able to maximise the qualities of the works he did write. This bodes well for subsequent volumes.
Nick Barnard

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