Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Symphony No.4 in D minor Op.95 Dramatic (1874) [65:24]
State Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Igor Golovchin
rec. The Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, Russia, October 1993
DELOS DRD2012 [65:24]
The thing is I have a bit of a weakness for a symphony with a good curiosity-tweaking name. Sadly, for every Alpine and Inextinguishable, every Romantic and Resurrection there is a Rubinstein Dramatic. If it wasn’t named so perhaps you wouldn’t mind so much but I find it hard to think of another work that crawls its way through a dragging hour plus in such a singularly undramatic way.
Rubinstein’s importance in the history of Classical Music in Russia is assured and unchallenged. As a piano virtuoso he had few peers. As a conductor he brought to performance many new works by his fellow contemporaries. Perhaps his most important contribution was the founding of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862 which was the first music academy in Russia. Perhaps it was this latter role, functioning as a teacher and pedagogue, that resulted in so much of his music being finely crafted and wholly functional yet lacking true inspiration. With a great work or composer you cannot imagine a single chord being voiced another way, a single note being played by another instrument - the work as a whole feels ‘right’. With this Rubinstein symphony, for all its inoffensive competence the sense is that melodies, instruments, harmonies are interchangeable at will. The other great problem is the length. Concision is clearly a concept Rubinstein chose not to embrace. I’m a great believer in not sanctioning cuts a composer has not approved. However, the conclusion with this work is that halving its length would have in no way lessened the impact.
Curiously the impulse to write the 4th Symphony - which this is - came after a break of nearly twenty years so one has to assume that the muse was with Rubinstein. Unfortunately his muse does rather like filling great pages with the musical equivalent of an aircraft’s holding pattern - you keep flying safely enough but going nowhere and getting ever more frustrated. The first movement is a case in point - over twenty two minutes of generic drama but singularly little excitement. Rubinstein has a knack of, just when you think you are in the final straight, veering away from a final cadence to try another generic peroration. It had me thinking - rather uncharitably - of Arnold’s Grand Grand Overture which goes through an entire instruction booklet of ‘endings’. The bad news is Rubinstein does this seriously. The second movement scherzo is titled Presto which one normally takes to mean pretty nippy. Here we jog along more like a middle distance athlete rather than a sprinter - Bruckner aside I cannot think of any ‘fast’ movements in romantic symphonies that are anything like as long but length is the only common factor. By some considerable distance the 3rd - slow - movement contains the best music in the work. It’s a lyrical Adagio with a singing main theme that develops in a memorable way. The finale has the good sense to be the shortest movement in the work but again is unfortunately formulaic in having a slow introduction leading to an Allegro con fuoco - treat the ‘with fire’ instruction with care. It would be quite wrong to say this is a work without any redeeming features but its main value is to remind you just what a towering genius Tchaikovsky was. Even Arensky and Taneiev emerge much more favourably. Glazunov at his dullest and least inspired is in a different league.
The useful liner makes the valid and interesting point that Rubinstein was seeking to prove that there was viable mileage in the traditional four movement symphony at a time when the form had been pronounced dead by the acolytes of Wagner. It’s a worthy cause but a shame to report that Rubinstein was not the man to carry the torch for the musical form he championed. You know a work is in trouble when the liner writer writes; “the work is not particularly impressive as a complete and unified work.” or quotes Tchaikovsky as saying “an excessive abundance of main ideas, many of which appear only episodically and are underdeveloped”. To be fair the rest of the Tchaikovsky quote is more positive.
As far as this recording goes this is a straight reissue by Delos of the 1994 Russian disc release. Playright and copyright are reassigned to Delos as 2012 but it is not clear if the recording has been re-mastered. As a performance it is competent. Rubinstein’s rather fussy inner part-writing causes the strings some ensemble and intonation problems that additional rehearsal or more takes would have solved. Woodwind principals are good but the playing as a whole is a tad anonymous. The brass have few opportunities to rage or roar in good old-fashioned Soviet style - indeed the trombones join the fray for the finale only. Conductor Igor Golovchin’s work I have enjoyed more in the past - there’s a crackling Rachmaninov 3rd Symphony and a good Gliere Ilya Murometz from the same team as here. Engineering is good without ever being exciting but somehow one feels that the ennui of the piece has affected all the other departments too - this is respectful professional playing and recording without ever sparking into the inspired. Quite why Delos felt this was a disc worthy of revival escapes me. There is another recording from the early days of Naxos which - read and weep - is significantly slower in every movement. Strange to relate I will not be seeking out that performance for comparison not with my ‘watching-paint-dry-in-exotic-places’ cruise already booked. Can I go back to sleep now please?
Nick Barnard 

Can I go back to sleep now please?