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Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Symphony no.4 in D minor, Dramatic, op.95 (1874) [65:24]
State Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Igor Golovchin
rec. Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, October 1993. DDD
DELOS DRD 2012 [65:24]

More than most composers, the symphonies of Anton Rubinstein have been maligned by critics down the years. Given the shrunken attention span with which people generally approach art in the 21st century, it comes as little surprise that the rubbishing continues even today in some quarters - for most of the criticism levelled at Rubinstein's symphonies can be reduced to comments pertaining to their perceived 'prolixity'. The sixty-five minute Fourth is a case in point. Rubinstein called it his 'Dramatic' Symphony, but how can any musical work lasting over an hour be dramatic?
 
Rubinstein's great Austrian contemporary namesake Anton Bruckner has a fanatical following despite the massive proportions of his own symphonies, but he is likewise a composer that some critics love to hate, with one English music journalist recently describing him as "the lumbering loony of Linz". She went on to describe her opinion of his symphonies in words that might be paraphrases of some of the venom aimed at Rubinstein over the years: "[His] symphonies are stiflingly, crushingly, oppressive. Once you're in one, you can't get out again. Spend too long in their grip and you lose the will to live. They are cold-blooded and exceedingly long, and they go round and round in circles."
 
So it is that Rubinstein's serious-minded preference to work his symphonic ideas out over unusually long spans is equated with 'rambling' tendencies or a lack of coherence, although it should be noted that Bruckner-demonising critic Eduard Hanslick was kinder to Rubinstein. Oddly, even the booklet notes say that "no matter how brilliant the thematic content [...] may be, how many compositional and structural virtues it offers, or how successful it is in certain sections - the work is not particularly impressive as a complete and unified work nowadays". With sophistic criticism like this Rubinstein seems perpetually tarnished. What literary writer would say the same about the even more 'long-winded' Tolstoy or 'digressive' Turgenev?
 
As it happens, another minor symphonist by the name of Tchaikovsky praised the Dramatic highly at the time, citing its "masterly technique, daring invention in the choice of idioms and narration of ideas." Tchaikovsky likened it to Beethoven, but in fact it sounds much more like Tchaikovsky himself, particularly in his early symphonies. The memorable finale, however, is more of a cross between Dvořák's nature tone poems and Brahms's First Piano Concerto.
 
The ‘Dramatic’ is a long work, and the drama is as subtle as Chekhov sometimes, but it is also hugely lyrical, moderately melancholic and eminently likeable. A second and third listen-through are of especial benefit, when the material - of which there is a vast and varied amount - will be more familiar and the scope of Rubinstein's orchestral imagination better appreciated.
 
Igor Golovchin keeps the SSOR pretty well disciplined overall, and their appreciation of Rubinstein's structures and ideas is well communicated by a genial performance. The only other recording was made around the same time as this by the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra under Robert Stankovsky on the Marco Polo label (8.223319), more recently reissued on Naxos (8.555979) - now distributors, coincidentally, for this Delos release. In fact, that Stankovsky recording is broadly comparable, both in terms of audio quality and standards of performance, with the Delos just edging it. Running times overall are almost identical, although the adagio third movement is taken much faster by Stankovsky, and the largo finale more slowly.
 
Sound quality is very decent, especially considering that the recording is now twenty years old and made behind what had only recently ceased to be the Iron Curtain (Russian Disc RDCD 11357). There is no more than minor thinness of sound apparent, chiefly in the strings. This CD, incidentally, forms part of a series of Russian Disc recordings now being reissued by Delos - hence the catalogue number prefix 'DRD' instead of the usual 'DE'. The back cover of the booklet gives further details. The notes are fairly sparse, imported and edited as they are from the original, but they offer as much information as most are likely to need about the 'Dramatic' Fourth Symphony.
 
Byzantion
Collected reviews and contact at artmusicreviews.co.uk
 
See also review by Nick Barnard

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