About this Recording
8.223489 - RUBINSTEIN: Piano Concerto No. 5 / Caprice Russe

Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894)
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat Major, Op. 94 • Caprice Russe, Op. 102


Anton Rubinstein was one of the Romantic era’s most charismatic musical figures, and near the last in a line of pianist-composers that reached a climax with Liszt, Busoni, and Rachmaninov. As a performer, some thought him at times to rival even Liszt himself. Rubinstein’s reputation as one of Russia’s seminal composers of the nineteenth century has remained controversial to this day, with much of his vast compositional output remaining unexplored either on the concert platform or on recordings even in his own country.

Over the final 44 years of his life Rubinstein published eight works for piano and orchestra, with the five concertos dating from 1850–1874. Two earlier unpublished piano concertos, now lost, were written in 1849, and a third “concerto” was revised and published as the Octet, Op. 9. During the later 19th and early 20th centuries the concertos achieved enormous popularity, not only when performed by the composer himself, but by such distinguished artists as Hans von Bülow, Busoni, Anna Essipova, Paderewski, Rachmaninov, and the composer’s own brother Nikolai. Josef Hofmann, Rubinstein’s most noted pupil, continued to perform both the Third and Fourth Concertos well into the 1940s, and Josef Lhévinne made his United States début in 1906 with the Fifth Concerto.

The Fifth Concerto was composed in 1874. It is by far the most gargantuan of any of Rubinstein’s piano and orchestra works, both by virtue of its nearly fifty minutes of music and the extreme physical demands made on the soloist. Significantly, Rubinstein dedicated the Fifth Concerto to Charles Valentin Alkan (real name Morhange), the eccentric French pianist-composer whose own keyboard works often contain similar pianistic extravagances. Rubinstein’s writing in the Fifth Concerto has been accused of being at times derivative of both Beethoven and Liszt. Such strong influences were perhaps inevitable for a composer such as Rubinstein, whose style was undeniably influenced both by the German school stemming from Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and by the keyboard wizardry of Liszt. Conversely, the influence that Rubinstein’s compositions and performance style had on such contemporaries as Tchaikovsky, Balakirev, and both the young Busoni and Rachmaninov cannot be ignored. Tchaikovsky, who for the most part was caustic in his opinions of Rubinstein’s compositions, in his own First Piano Concerto (which was finished close to a year after Rubinstein’s Fifth Concerto) came perilously close to an outright plagiarizing of certain of Rubinstein’s pianistic effects.

In the Fifth Concerto, as in his other piano concertos, Rubinstein largely adheres to traditional structure. The opening huge movement is in sonata form, complete with a solo piano cadenza. In the opening principal theme given by the orchestra there is a pentatonic flavour, which to the listener sounds vaguely Oriental. At the close of the movement’s exposition section, the series of elephantine, powerful ascending chords played by the piano against the horns of the orchestra must have been a strong stimulus for Tchaikovsky’s own famous opening to his First Concerto. Rubinstein’s extreme demands for the soloist include extended octave passages and huge chords written expressly for the composer’s own mammoth reach, and difficult trills in double notes for both hands.

The dark, sombre second movement is in three-part form, with rhapsodic passages in the piano which punctuate and answer the quiet, folk-like material initially given in the orchestra. After an impassioned solo piano cadenza finally signals the return to the opening material, Rubinstein now reverses the order of themes, then ends the movement with three pizzicatos and a muffled, ominous muttering of the timpani.

The finale is constructed in sonata-rondo form. Like the first movement, it is built on a huge scale, with enormous musical gestures and technical demands for the soloist. Following several statements of a wild, rollicking theme that might be nicknamed “The Hunt”, Rubinstein has the piano play an Italian dance tune over a typical Central Italian drone bass of open fifths. (In the manuscript Rubinstein indicates this as a “Tarantella Napolitaine populaire”.) Considerable glittering technical display for the pianist follows, then a concluding explosion of upward moving interlocking octaves, reminiscent of the close of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto, brings this titanic movement to a suitably brilliant conclusion.

Although Rubinstein had written some works in a Russian vein as early as 1852, he largely avoided exploiting such nationalistic materials until the composing of the Caprice Russe in 1878. Several other “Russian” works would soon follow, including the opera The Merchant Kalashnikov and the Fifth Symphony. The Caprice is dedicated to Anna Essipova, both a student and the second wife of Theodor Leschetizky. Essipova would later teach at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where her pupils would include Prokofiev. The Caprice falls into four tempo sections: Moderato assai, Allegro moderato, Tempo I, Allegro (and coda). Three Russian folk songs of dubious origin are used throughout. In addition to Rubinstein’s ingenious manipulating and combining of these themes, midway through he adds a repetitive orchestral background of dance-like material, similar to that found in Glinka’s work for orchestra entitled Kamarinskaya. The piano in the meantime is given glittering figuration that shows-off the soloist.

The Caprice at first gained immediate public favour, with even the usually critical Tchaikovsky admiring in particular the orchestral writing. Then, as was sadly true of many of Rubinstein’s works for piano and orchestra, it sank into undeserved obscurity. It is one of the composer’s most engaging works, and along with the Fifth Concerto deserving of much wider audience familiarity.

This performance of the Caprice Russe is a world-première recording.

Joseph Banowetz

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