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Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Piano Concerto No. 4 [33:17]
Piano Concerto No. 2 [38:27]
Schaghajegh Nosrati (piano)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Róbert Farkas
rec. 7-11 October 2019, Haus des Rundfunks, Großer Sendesaal, Berlin
CPO 555 352-2 [71:51]

The cpo label is adventurous in its programming, frequently issuing recordings of music on the edges of mainstream schedules. Young German pianist – of Iranian ancestry - Schaghajegh Nosrati has hitherto been best known for her Bach but here moves forward to tackle two neglected Russian-Romantic concertos by the 19C virtuoso and composer Anton Rubinstein.

Knowing little or nothing of Rubinstein’s music beyond his most enduring opera, The Demon, and that as a teacher and performer he had been a great influence over his pupil Tchaikovsky, it was in a spirit of enquiry that I ventured to review this double bill of his second and fourth piano concertos. I learned that No. 4 has remained in the repertoire – not that I had ever heard it – but that for the most part he was accused of composing music characterised by empty display at the expense of musical coherence and profundity. Consequently, I set out to test that accusation.

There is a certain crudity to the orchestration of the introduction of the Fourth Piano Concerto and its short-windedness suggests that Rubinstein cannot wait to get to the great thunderous, sweeping roulades with which the soloist announces her presence, so the preparation for her advent seems cursory. It isn’t long before she is displaying a whole range of pianistic effects and techniques, as one would expect from a composer who was also the greatest virtuoso pianist of his era and the piano remains dominant throughout, reducing the orchestra to little more than a polite commentator. Here is the nub of the problem for me; despite persistent efforts appreciate Liszt’s pianistic extravaganzas, I have never been able learn to love them, and this concerto seems to me to be in the same mould, conceptually, if not musically. That the florid technique demanded of the soloist is impressive is undeniable; whether it is aesthetically absorbing is another question. I find it hard to grasp the overall shape and progress of the succession of trills, thrills and spills executed in masterly fashion by Nosrati; there are a lot of echoes of Schumann, pre-echoes of Rachmaninov and some atmospheric colouristic touches from the woodwind but essentially I keep wondering where the music is going - and why.

The elegantly played Andante slow movement is more conventional and the interjections by solo trumpet create a beguilingly plaintive and mournful mood, but its main theme is banal and not very memorable. Its agitated central section is beautifully played and synchronisation between the piano and the orchestra is expertly maintained by conductor Róbert Farkas, whose work I have not previously encountered. The finale reverts to the pyrotechnics heard in the first movement and once gain I find that the invention of the thematic material does not match the virtuosity of the pianism; there is a lot of scurrying, banging and thumping “oompah” but it goes nowhere.

I actually find the earlier, second concerto considerably more approachable and appealing – very much more to my taste. It is less diffuse and florid, and its musical ideas are more discernible to my amateur ears, despite some gaucheness excusable in a twenty-one-year-old. The virtuosic element is of course very much to the fore but it is less relentlessly assertive and the orchestra is given greater prominence as more of an equal partner. The first movement outstays its welcome as inspiration wanes over nearly twenty minutes but it contains much, such as its swinging three-quarter-time main theme, which is charming and striking. The Adagio has a Chopinesque lilt and lightness tinged with melancholy and an underlying brooding, Russian menace. I particularly like the central section where the piano intones a sequence of chords while above them the trumpet wails the melody. The cheerfully skipping finale again suggests a manic waltz

The notes are full and helpful, providing both musicological analysis and biographical context. The sound and balance are exemplary.

As I explained above, this is my first exposure to Rubinstein’s piano concertos and while I recognise something of their appeal, I don’t find their comparative neglect too hard to understand. Obviously mine is a very personal reaction and if you respond more positively than I to this music, I dare assert that you will not find it better executed elsewhere. The Fourth in particular is full of grand sweeping gestures, scintillating pianism and a plethora of ideas which for me rarely cohere; the Second may be more conventional but it better balances showmanship with musicality.

Ralph Moore

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