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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 beginning.
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 merely acceptable.
Paul Corfield Godfrey