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8.570942 - RUBINSTEIN, A.: Piano Music (1852-1894) (Banowetz) - Souvenir de Dresde / Akrostichon No. 1
English 

Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894)
Piano Music (1852–1894)

 

Although Rubinstein is remembered today mainly for his notorious Melody in F, his influence on the development of Russian music and the Russian school of piano playing cannot be overstated. Anton Rubinstein was born to a Jewish family of German-Polish origin on 28 November 1829 in the village of Vikhvatinets, in Bessarabia. In the early 1830s his family moved to Moscow, where he received his first musical training from his mother, and later from the Moscow pianist and teacher Aleksandr Villuan (Villoing). Rubinstein made his public début in 1839 at the age of ten. The young musician’s reputation rapidly spread across Europe and his Paris début in the Salle Erard in 1841 was attended by Liszt, Chopin, Kalkbrenner and Meyerbeer. In 1842 he made his début in London. There he was heard by the distinguished pianist and composer Ignaz Moscheles, who referred to the young virtuoso as “a rival to Thalberg—a Russian boy whose fingers are light as feathers and yet strong as a man’s.”

In 1844, following a successful concert tour of Europe, Rubinstein pursued formal training in composition in Berlin under Siegfried Dehn (who had also taught Glinka). He returned in 1848 to Russia, where he came to the attention of the Grand Duchess Helena Pavlovna, sister-in-law of the Tsar, who invited him to come to her palace on Kamenniy-ostrov (Rocky Island) to accompany singers in her salon. Rubinstein’s tenure at Kamenniy-ostrov was an extraordinarily productive period for the young composer, who completed in these years three symphonies, five operas, three piano concertos, nearly fifty songs, and many works for solo piano. Rubinstein’s experiences as a vocal accompanist would undoubtedly shape his development as a composer, inspiring him to craft long, cantabile lines that unfold naturally, accompanied by a delicate tracery of piano figuration.

In 1854 Rubinstein once again toured Europe, this time with the aim of establishing himself as a composer. He returned in 1858 to St Petersburg, where he was later appointed Imperial Concert Director and granted a lifetime pension. From then on he would devote himself tirelessly to the advancement of Russian music, first with the establishment of the Russian Musical Society in 1861 and in the following year, along with Carl Schuberth, the founding of the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he would serve as its first director until 1867. Rubinstein worked at a superhuman pace, serving as administrator, private tutor, producing quantities of new compositions and travelling widely as itinerant international virtuoso. Contemporary reviewers would continually acclaim Rubinstein’s prowess as a pianist and his programmes regularly featured an enormous range of repertoire from Bach to the latest music of his contemporaries.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s Rubinstein continued his punishing schedule of activity with numerous concert tours throughout Europe and even America. He returned to Russia and taught again at the Conservatory in the late 1880s, but in 1891 moved to Dresden. His health was failing, however, and he spent his last year on his estate near St Petersburg, on the shores of the Baltic, where he died in November 1894 a few days short of his 65th birthday.

Despite Rubinstein’s prolific output and mastery of large-scale forms, his modern reputation rests primarily on a handful of miniatures. Both as a pianist and a composer he was praised for his extraordinary ability to shape a song-like melody. The present programme presents a portrait of Anton Rubinstein, the composer of salon pieces par excellence.

The Sérénade russe in B minor (c. 1879) was composed for L’Album Bellini, a miscellany of works by different composers, and is a charming vision of Russia by way of Germany. The opening bars display a slightly modal feel and the improvisatory flow of the music does provide a hint of local colour, before returning to the safety of the salon. The two Melodies Op. 3, composed when Rubinstein was 23 years old, are undoubtedly Rubinstein’s most well-known compositions, and while it may be easy to dismiss these salon pieces as mere pot-boilers, they contain many of the musical qualities that define Rubinstein at his best. The once-famous Melody in F is beautifully laid out for the keyboard, as the two thumbs play a simple melody inside the downbeat-offbeat pattern of the outer voices. A short chromatic transition passage leads to the return of the opening melody and a short, attractive coda. The Melody in B major provides a delicate contrast to its more famous companion. Here once again an elegant, long-breathed line is placed in the middle of the keyboard, surrounded by the gently pulsating outer voices.

The Souvenir de Dresde, Op. 118, was written in the year of the composer’s death, following his return to Russia. A feeling of nostalgia permeates all of the pieces in this little collection, as well as some extremely interesting rhythmic effects. Simplicitas (in F major) opens with the fragile delicacy of a hothouse flower before giving way to more pianistic displays. No. 2, Appassionata (in C minor) features a rising melodic line, and is somewhat evocative of Brahms at his most restless. The third piece, Novellete (in A major) is one of the most attractive in the set. Beginning with an elegantly crafted melody sounding like a late Romantic vision of Rameau; this soon gives way to a bumptious, syncopated middle section before returning to the refined mood of the opening. The Caprice in C major (No. 4) is in simple A-B-A form, both sections sharing a rising melodic shape. The Nocturne in A flat major (No. 5) is in a rather free Rondo form and clearly draws some of its inspiration from Chopin’s models. The concluding Polonaise in E flat minor, dedicated to Rubinstein’s young pupil Josef Hofmann, who would later become one of the world’s most famous pianists, is undoubtedly the musical highpoint of the set. In the space of a mere six minutes Rubinstein creates an almost orchestral sonority, using widely spaced chords, octaves and recitative-like interruptions to tremendous dramatic effect.

The Romance and Impromptu, Op. 26, is representative of a large number of salon pieces that Rubinstein composed throughout his life, a contrasting pair consisting of a lyrical piece and a more virtuoso show piece. The monothematic Romance, in F major, is a true song without words, with the melody clearly articulated throughout, while the contrasting Impromptu, in A minor, is full of busy passage-work. The Acrostics Op. 37 were composed around 1856 following a very successful two-year tour of Europe. The acrostic referred to in the title spells out “L-A-U-R-A” and refers to Laura Shveykovskaya, an early love interest of the young composer. The gentle, understated nature of each of the five movements is perfectly suited to its intimate subject. The first sketch, (L Allegro con moto) is characterized by a lilting syncopated rhythm. No. 2 (A Moderato) is a Mendelssohnian barcarolle. The third piece, (U Andante) is another attractively scored miniature, featuring some clever hand-crossings and an insistent dotted-rhythm, while the fourth piece (R Con moto) begins with a restless walking-bass that suggests feelings of urgency. The final piece in the collection (A Vivace) returns to the untroubled innocence of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, with a graceful melody and rippling sixteenth note (semiquaver) triplets providing a loving portrait of Laura herself.


Joshua Cheek


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