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
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
Lacks the colour and variety of contemporary Russian composers such as Borodin