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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Don Quixote, musical picture after Cervantes, op.87 (1869) [27:32]
Ivan IV, musical picture after L.A. Mey, op.79 (1868) [23:53]
State Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Igor Golovchin
rec. Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, December 1993

Rubinstein? Wasn't he the fool who told Tchaikovsky that his first piano concerto was “worthless … unplayable … hackneyed … clumsy … awkward … trite … vulgar”?

Well, no, he wasn't actually. It was Nikolai Rubinstein who had that dubious distinction, thereby making himself forever the butt of innumerable CD booklet writers' gleeful schadenfreude. The Rubinstein under consideration here, Anton, elder brother to Nikolai, is in consequence the lesser remembered of the siblings.

During his lifetime Anton Rubinstein’s music was criticised for being too heavily influenced by western European models, in contrast to that of the increasingly influential members of the “Mighty Handful” with their emphasis on unearthing native musical sources and developing a more “nationalist” and attractively exotic style. Today his compositions are virtually never heard in concert halls outside Russia and, while recording companies have occasionally attempted to market the odd symphony or two (see here and here for a couple of examples), the listening public has, in truth, remained pretty indifferent.

Is this release of two of the composer’s “musical pictures”, Don Quixote and Ivan IV, the latter a depiction of the monarch more familiar in popular culture as Ivan the Terrible, likely to spark new interest?
After a forthrightly dramatic and rather dark-hued opening, Don Quixote quickly reveals itself as an essentially episodic piece. While there are several individually quite attractive episodes, at least to my ears they fail to gel effectively into a coherent whole. Other listeners unfamiliar with the music may also find that rather alienating, even though the unattributed booklet notes attempt a positive spin by claiming that an effectively “comic mood is achieved by a subtle comparison of the diverse thematic materials as they follow each other or as they are heard in combination.” That’s one comparison that’s a little too subtle for me, I'm afraid! I side rather with Tchaikovsky who, while finding Don Quixote “very interesting and well done”, considered that, on balance, “its episodic nature is somewhat reminiscent of ballet pantomime music.”

The slightly earlier Ivan IV doesn't attempt to tell the story of the notorious tsar and his reign so much as to depict his personality: Ivan, in this musical portrayal, is a somewhat more complex character than the simple suffix “the Terrible” might suggest. Unconstrained by the need to depict individual “events”, Rubinstein’s conception and execution is here far less episodic than in Don Quixote, so that the piece is far easier to appreciate on first hearing. Borodin, for one, was impressed, even if he felt obliged to add a rather mischievous sting in the tail: “to my surprise, the music is good; you simply can't recognise it as Rubinstein.”

Given that we are unlikely to see much competition in this repertoire, it is good to find that the performances are accomplished ones. The State Symphony Orchestra of Russia – as Svetlanov’s old USSR State Symphony Orchestra had been renamed after the fall of communism - plays idiomatically and, when offered the opportunity in Ivan IV, with appropriately “Russian” verve. They make, too, the best possible case for the more problematic and ultimately less memorable Don Quixote. Conductor Igor Golovchin - a stalwart of the Naxos catalogue with recordings of Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Scriabin, Medtner and Kabalevsky to his (transliterated slightly differently) name - knows exactly how this music needs to be presented to best effect. So too does the engineering team responsible for a recording that, with warmly attractive sound, betrays little sign of having been made almost twenty years ago.
This is an interesting disc, but one likely to appeal most to listeners with a special interest in 19th century musical byways. I am not sure that I will be revisiting it soon - though I might have been more inclined to do so had another track or two been included to bulk out the disc’s current rather paltry offering of only a little over fifty minutes.
Rob Maynard