Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Piano Music (1852-1894)
Sérénade russe in B minor (c.1879) [6:01]
Two Melodies Op.3 (1852) [7:01]
Souvenir de Dresde Op.118 (1894) [37:21]
Romance and Impromptu Op.26 (1854/58) [6:17]
Akrostichon No.1 Op.37 (c.1856) [18:42]
Joseph Banowetz (piano)
rec. March and November 2008, Skywalker Sound, Marin County, CA
NAXOS 8.570942 [75:21]

Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Piano Music (1871-1890)
Theme and Variations Op.88 (1871) [47:01]
Akrostichon No.2 Op.114 (1890) [26:43]
Joseph Banowetz (piano)
rec. March and November 2008, Skywalker Sound, Marin County, CA
NAXOS 8.570941 [73:44]

There are a number of first recorded performances in these two discs. Critics are always wary of repeating the ‘premiere recording’ pronouncements made by record companies, lest they receive angry communications from disgruntled readers who have hoarded some obscure item for decades. The kind of thing I do, in fact. But on this occasion I shall merely state that everything on the 1852-1894 disc is claimed to be a première recording except the Op.3 Melodies (one is Rubinstein’s Greatest Hit) and one of the Souvenir de Dresde set has been recorded before, the sixth piece, the Polonaise. Both works on the companion disc are also apparently making their first ever appearance on disc. Note the ‘apparently’; old habits die hard.

Joseph Banowetz has made something of a study of the executant-composer Anton Rubinstein’s works. There’s a sheaf of things on Marco Polo. So he’s ideally placed to take on these solo works and present them knowledgeably and with discriminating musicianship. The Sérénade russe is a pleasing if rather generic morceaux, and acts as an entrée for the Melody in F major, the aforementioned Hit. The Op.118 Souvenir de Dresde was written in the last year of Rubinstein’s life. Each of the six pieces has features of interest. The first has florid virtuosity, a Lisztian panache, whilst the second is an Appassionata with stormy, if repetitious quasi-Brahmsian heat. The third, by contrast, a Novelette, doesn’t try too hard and is doubly attractive as a result. It evokes the baroque and harpsichord sonorities with wit but could have done with being truncated. Rubinstein’s besetting fault is repetition. At one point I thought the Nocturne – the fifth of the set – was going to break out into Chopinesque contrary motion octaves. The Polonaise, the one that has been recorded, is again attractive but at six and a half minutes, too long for its material.

The Romance and Impromptu are neatly contrasted – warm salon lyricism and then playful energy. Then we have Akrostichon No.1 which, in English, spells out the name of ‘Laura’, a crush of Rubinstein’s back in c.1856. This quintet of charming little intimate sketches is dance saturated and Mendelssohnian-light.

The second disc focuses on the big Theme and Variations of 1871, three-quarters of an hour in length in this performance, made up of a theme and twelve variations, the last of which is a big ten minute Allegro moderato. Starting with gaunt left hand octaves the theme itself soon opens out into Rubinsteinian grandiloquence, romantic, stentorian, richly chorded. The variations that follow are varied and various. Some manage to sing in the right hand over constantly, unrelentingly arpeggiated chords [No.1] whilst others propound rolled chords and march themes, as does No.3. We dip into the minor for the fifth variation before perking up half way through, and also hear Rubinstein evoke Schumann in the rather lovely seventh variation. This however, it seems to me, would work rather better as a miniature in its own right. Being embedded into the superstructure of what is, in essence, in any case, a Schumannesque work unbalances it. So too, really, does the ensuing variation which sounds like an organ transcription, heroically grand and suitably over-long. By now Rubinstein’s material is losing focus and as if to reinforce the point the final variation is simply too grandiloquent and massive – with the inevitable fugato included – to reconcile the heterogeneous material that has preceded it. It’s something of a heroic failure.

The coupling is the second set of Akrostichon, written in 1871. These playful salon effusions are full of dance patterns – note the increasingly virtuosic Mazurka – and also have folkloric inflexions too.

Banowetz has been well served by the engineering at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, a venue used quite often by Naxos. The notes are excellent. The first reviewed disc has greater variety but the second is the more ambitious. And of course there is that ‘premiere recording’ status to tempt you.

Jonathan Woolf

Banowetz has made something of a study of the executant-composer Anton Rubinstein and is ideally placed to take on these works and present them knowledgeably and with discriminating musicianship.