Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Symphony No 5 in G minor, Op.107 [39.30]
Dmitry Donskoy Overture (1850): [12.04]
Faust, Op.68 [19.56]
George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra/Horia Andreescu
rec. Bucharest, Romania, July 1988
NAXOS 8.557005 [71.30]
Naxos have certainly been taking their time over
the reissue of their series of Rubinstein symphonies originally issued
on their sister Marco Polo label. The four discs containing the first
four symphonies came out during 2001-02, but we have had to wait a further
eleven years for this reissue of the Fifth; the final disc containing
the Sixth Symphony has yet to re-emerge.
During the late nineteenth century Rubinstein was regarded as one of
the major Russian composers, certainly on a level with Tchaikovsky.
His opera The Demon was one of the most popular on the Russian
stage during the closing years of the Tsarist era. However since the
Revolution he has become almost totally neglected. When Marco Polo began
their complete recordings of his symphonies during the 1980s they were
exploring repertoire which had escaped the attention of other companies;
there does not appear ever to have been a complete cycle even on Melodiya,
for example. Their recordings, given in generally serviceable performances
rather than great ones, nevertheless served to fill an obvious gap in
the catalogues. Although a few other recordings of Rubinstein’s
symphonies have appeared subsequently, the Marco Polo cycle - with various
orchestras and conductors - remains the sole representative of the complete
set. As such one welcomes the decision to issue the remainder of the
discs, with presumably the Sixth to follow.
The recordings serve also to show why Rubinstein’s compositional
star has waned. His music lacks the colour and variety of contemporary
Russian composers such as Borodin or Rimsky-Korsakov, and the sheer
tunefulness of Tchaikovsky. Rubinstein was opposed to the ideals of
the ‘Mighty Handful’ with their idolisation of Glinka as
the prototype of what a Russian composer should be. His music harkened
back to an earlier era when Mendelssohn and Schumann were regarded as
the role models. Keith Anderson’s informative note refers to the
accusations of Kitsch which were levelled by his contemporaries
at Rubinstein’s music. It has to be admitted that there is an
element of truth in that jibe.
The Fifth Symphony, written in 1880, opens with a theme which
has more than a reminiscence of the beginning of Boris Godunov,
the first performances of which Rubinstein must have heard some years
earlier. That said, Rubinstein’s development of the material,
brash and confident, has none of Mussorgsky’s melancholy weariness.
The perky second subject is delivered with cheeky point by the Romanian
woodwind players, but the development section is a very mechanical exploration
of the material not helped by a tumultuous fugal section which stretches
the orchestral strings here to their limits and a good way beyond. Although
one can imagine a better-turned orchestral performance, I don’t
think it would have helped to redeem the poverty of imagination here.
This all builds to a climax as the recapitulation begins, but then the
music suddenly runs out of steam and just returns to the same mood as
The second movement is a sort of scherzetto, Allegro non troppo,
which with its skirling woodwind figures has a certain charm and even
a slight foretaste of Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsodies which
doubtless appealed to these players. Unfortunately the horn solo which
launches the Andante is delivered here with a broad Slavonic
vibrato which makes the melody sound more vulgar than it is. Although
the middle section of the movement again seems to develop the material
in a manner that is rather too reminiscent of too many nights in the
academic study, the return of the opening theme on full strings has
an element of Tchaikovskian grandeur. After this the finale is a predictably
lively rondo based on a folk-sounding melody which rather belies Rubinstein’s
opposition to his Russian contemporaries’ use of such material.
Then again, they all did this sort of thing rather more idiomatically.
The music here makes less strenuous demands on the orchestra, and they
play with affection and style.
There is only one other recording in the current catalogue of Rubinstein’s
Fifth Symphony, a Centaur release coupled with the Third
by the Bratislava Slovak State Philharmonic under Barry Kolman. Naxos
have already given us the Third with different couplings, so
the issue under consideration here comes with two overtures. Kolman’s
performance is slightly slower than Andreescu’s in all movements,
but it must be said that the orchestral playing is generally no better.
The horn in the slow movement is less vibrato-laden and the recorded
sound is rather airless.
Of the two overtures we are given here, that to Rubinstein’s first
opera Dmitry Donskoy is no better than its title would suggest,
with its plentiful use of doom-laden tremolando strings showing
acquaintance with Wagner and Berlioz. The 1864 concert overture Faust
is something rather different again. Originally it was intended as part
of a Faust Symphony - it is not clear whether Rubinstein was
familiar with Liszt’s work - but the composer preserved only this
movement as a “musical picture after Goethe”. Its prominent
role for the tuba in the opening bars suggests an acquaintance with
Wagner’s Faust Overture, and it bears the comparison well
with its tempestuous middle section showing a real feel for symphonic
development which goes well beyond the purely academic. The orchestra,
as if aware that this is music of real substance, plays well and with
plenty of fire and passion. The recorded sound throughout is more than
Paul Corfield Godfrey