I was all set to gripe about how some people still can't be bothered giving us the full seven-movement version of the Ocean Symphony. The first LP release, conducted by Richard Kapp on Vox Candide, dropped two movements, citing space limitations; Stephen Gunzenhauser, however, later recorded the whole thing for the HNH combine, which includes Naxos. Then I read the programme notes and discovered that Rubinstein originally wrote the piece as a conventional four-movement symphony, adding two more movements in 1863, and a seventh in 1880 - almost thirty years after the premiere. So even purists can't really complain about Igor Golovchin's choice of the original four-movement score for this recording.
Anton Rubinstein holds his place in music history as Tchaikovsky's teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, but neither the Romantic revival of circa 1970 - which included that Vox release - nor the more recent one during the CD boom has significantly enhanced his own stature as a composer. He certainly knew how to weave clear, even translucent sonorities from orchestral instruments. His themes are attractive enough, though they tend not to linger in the memory.
Unfortunately, Rubinstein - also like his best-known student - was less successful at fleshing out symphonic form. He clearly understood the use of short rhythmic and melodic motifs in generating larger structures. Rather than developing them, he resorts simply to repeating them, question-and-answer style, through a sequence of tonal centres. The short-winded, formulaic repetitions more than once bring the music to a dead halt: for all the busywork, nothing's really going on. The suggestion of "Dvořák syndrome" at the end of the symphony's first movement - stacking up multiple endings, one after another, like jetliners over Kennedy Airport - reinforces that impression.
It's in the simplest passages - those that present the main themes in attractive, uncluttered orchestral garb - that symphony is most striking. Much of the first movement, in fact, is beautiful and stirring, though the development runs out of steam. In the Adagio non tanto, the strings' sombre opening theme and the tentatively affirmative passage at 3:38 convey some emotional affect. The finale's atmospheric slow introduction is magical. In the main Allegro con fuoco, however, only the whirling theme stands out amid the padding; the climactic chorale is joyless, without uplift or elation.
The ballet music from the opera Feramors makes a better effect, at least for two movements. The first Dance of the Bayadères and the Dance of the Kashmiri Brides offer the melodic appeal and rhythmic lilt of the mainstream ballets of Delibes and Adam. This is a compliment. The minor-key waltz that starts the Kashmiri dance recalls Tchaikovsky as well. The other two movements, unfortunately, don't get much past Minkus. The second Dance of the Bayadères is both short-winded and empty-headed; the Wedding March begins agreeably, but reflects the composer's propensity for beating a tune to death.
Golovchin does his damnedest to make this material work, and, as suggested, he intermittently succeeds. The State Symphony Orchestra plays well. Strings are warm and well-blended. The oboes can wheeze a bit, but the low flutes at the finale's start are pleasingly round and clear. Overall discipline is good, although ensemble becomes uncertain - not coincidentally - where the writing becomes routine, as near the end of the first-movement development in the Ocean, and after 2:27 in the Adagio non tanto.
The sound is colourful. In full chords, the trumpets have a hard edge. In the Ocean's first movement, however, the doleful trumpet fanfare as the music fades at 11:31 registers with a nice sense of space.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.