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Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Symphony No. 2 in C, Op. 42, Ocean (original version, 1851) [47.42]
Feramors: Ballet music (1862) [18.29]
State Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Igor Golovchin
rec. October 1993, Great Hall, Moscow Conservatory, Russia
DELOS DRD 2010 [66.11]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor Op.95 Dramatic (1874) [65.24]
State Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Igor Golovchin
rec. October 1993, Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, Russia
DELOS DRD2012 [65.24]

A book I have, published in 1969, features a number of neglected composers and their rarely heard works. Appearing in a chapter titled “One-Work Men” is the Russian composer Anton Rubinstein. The work in question is the Melody in F for solo piano, Op. 3/1. Well, some forty-five years on nothing much has changed as the Melody in F (1852) is still Rubinstein’s best known work. Although nowhere near as popular as the Melody in F, Rubinstein’s opera ‘The Demon’ (1871), acclaimed from its 1875 première, is still sometimes staged and is also given in concert performance. I recall in 2009 the touring Mariinsky Theatre under Valery Gergiev gave a concert performance at the Barbican, London. Apart from the Melody in F and that performance of ‘The Demon’ I have never seen any Rubinstein works programmed although a number of recordings are available on labels such as Delos and Naxos (review; review; review; review) to greatly assist Rubinstein’s cause. Of Rubinstein’s chamber music the Quintet for piano and winds. Op. 55 (1855) is the work most likely to be encountered, often coupled on CD with the Rimsky-Korsakov Quintet for piano and winds (1876).

One of the greatest virtuoso pianists of the nineteenth century Rubinstein toured widely including America. An educator, Rubinstein, the first director and professor of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and founder of the Russian Music Society, also managed to find time to compose. Rubinstein was especially prolific in the genre of opera writing around seventeen — a number that I find varies depending on the source consulted — and writing six symphonies.

In 2012 the Delos label on its 'Russian Disc' series released these recordings of the Rubinstein Symphonies No. 2 ‘Ocean’ and No. 4 ‘Dramatic’. Both these Rubinstein works were popular for a time following their premières but have virtually disappeared from concert programmes today. First comes the Delos release with the Symphony No. 2 in C major , Op. 42 ‘Ocean’ and also ballet music from ‘Feramors’. Rubinstein was thirty-two when in 1851 he composed this Symphony, a large-scale work in four movements dedicated to Franz Liszt. Giving the work considerable revision over a number of years, Rubinstein added two movements in 1863 and wrote a new Scherzo some seventeen years later. However, it is the original 1851 version that Igor Golovchin conducts here.

Golovchin and his Russian players make committed advocates for this substantial work which I see as the interaction between the human spirit and the character of the all-powerful sea. Adopting an unyielding structural control Golovchin brings impressive warmth and intensity without ever letting the flow wilt or labour. I admit surprise that the contrasts in the score are not as broad as I expected. The opening Allegro maestoso is essentially upbeat, cheerful and agreeable. At times I was reminded of the music of early Tchaikovsky, a former pupil of Rubinstein. Marked Adagio non tanto in the slow movement there is little to unsettle the prevailing mood of warm reflection. A distinctly valiant feel inhabits the Scherzo and the heroic Finale with its slight valedictory undercurrent concludes on a jubilant note.

In 1862 Rubinstein composed ‘Feramors’, a two act opera to a libretto by Julius Rodenberg based on ‘Lalla Rookh’ by Irish poet Thomas Moore. Basically the plot concerns the Princess of Hindustan betrothed to the King of Bokhara who falls in love with Feramors a young Kashmiri troubadour. Here Golovchin conducts a suite of four dances from ‘Feramors’. Although agreeable episodes this suite suffers greatly from the dances being taken out of their respective places from the actual Feramors opera. In ‘Dance of the Bayadères I’ the continual repeating of an attractive melody feels rather overdone followed by the Dance of the Brides of Kashmir which is memorably attractive and features Mazurka rhythms. Suffused with the rhythm of the Polonaise the ‘Dance of the Bayadères II’ is bright and upbeat in disposition and the concluding ‘Wedding Procession’ displays shades of a martial character together with an exotic tinge of the orient.

The second Delos release contains a single work, the Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 95 known as the ‘Dramatic’. It's lengthy at around sixty-five minutes. Composed in 1874 Rubinstein gave the score the subtitle ‘Dramatic’ but seems to have been unwilling to disclose the significance of the title. Cast in four movements, the score employs moderate ‘classical’ orchestration more Mendelssohn-sized than Brucknerian, with trombones and piccolo added to bolster the Finale.

The State Symphony Orchestra of Russia under Igor Golovchin treats the ‘Dramatic’ Symphony as if it was a masterwork by Beethoven or Bruckner but nothing can make the music better than it is. Golovchin ensures his charges provide full romantic power for this bright and colourful score even though it falls short of being memorable with the composer tending to overwork his material. At twenty-two minutes the lengthy opening movement, which has plenty of stormy tension and drama, reveals its debt to the European mainstream notably Schumann and Beethoven together with early Tchaikovsky. The Presto is robust and feels tightly constructed, generating effective contrasts and some rousing episodes. Glowing with passionate intensity the Adagio has a slight undertow of melancholy. The concluding movement, sporting some appealing passages, could not have been played with more endeavour than by Golovchin and his steadfast players.

There's little information available about these Rubinstein scores so thankfully these two Delos releases each contain a booklet essay covering the basic gen. All the works were recorded in 1993 at the Great Hall, Moscow Conservatory, Russia with the sound team for Delos producing excellent sonics which are clear and well balanced. Golovchin has the full measure of these works and the orchestra plays as if its life depended on it. These Rubinstein works should fit the bill for those interested in good quality romantic repertoire slightly off the beaten track.

Michael Cookson
Previous reviews
Symphony 2: Stephen Vasta
Symphony 4: Byzantion ~~ Nick Barnard



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