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8.220359 - RUBINSTEIN: Violin Concerto, Op. 46 / Don Quixote, Op. 87
Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894)
Anton Rubinstein achieved the height of fame as a pianist, a rival and successor to Liszt. His abilities as a composer, however, attracted less favourable notice. Liszt was to refer to him as the pseudo-musician of the future. In the same letter to his friend Dr. Brendel he refers to Rubinstein’s obvious facility as a composer—“he may sow his wild oats and fish deeper in the Mendelssohn waters, and even swim away if he likes: but, sooner or later, I am certain he will give up the obvious and the conventional for the organically real”.
If Rubinstein failed to arouse the well known generosity of Liszt, he met an even cooler reception from an increasingly important group of contemporaries in his native Russia, where his castigation of the Russian nationalist composers grouped around Balakirev as amateurs aroused the animosity of the most influential writer of the movement, Vladimir Stasov, who claimed that few of Rubinstein’s compositions rose above mediocrity, finding exceptions only in works of an exotic tinge, and in the humorous Don Quixote.
By education and inclination Rubinstein was a conservative composer of the more traditional German school. It was, therefore, understandable that his relationship with Russian nationalist composers should initially have been cold, and that the music of Liszt and, still more, of Wagner should have proved unacceptable to him. The former in his harsh judgement of Rubinstein’s Ocean Symphony—“listening to it, you feel everything you would feel on a sea-voyage, including seasickness”—is anticipating the kind of ridicule Rubinstein and his circle were to pour on Liszt’s “Music of the Future”.
Anton Rubinstein was born in a district of Russia near the frontier of modern Romania, the son of German-Jewish parents, who, like Mendelssohn’s father and mother, had chosen to become Christians, a choice that both Mendelssohn and Rubinstein stressed in a number of sacred works, further evidence of the baptism that the Jewish poet Heine had described as a ticket of admission into European culture.
After early piano lessons with his mother, Rubinstein became a pupil of Alexander Villoing in Moscow, where the family had settled, and by the age of nine was ready to make his first public appearance, followed, during the next three years, by a series of concert tours taking him to Paris, the Netherlands, England, Scandinavia and Germany. In 1844 the Rubinsteins moved to Berlin, where they remained until the death of Anton Rubinstein’s father in 1846. The period in Prussia allowed study with Siegfried Dehn, Glinka’s former teacher, and acquaintance with Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer.
For two years after his father’s death Anton Rubinstein lived in Vienna, alleviating his poverty by giving piano lessons, and much in need of the kind of practical assistance that Liszt might have given him, had he been so inclined. Unusually, the latter had refused to accept Rubinstein as a pupil when he heard him play in 1846, perhaps sensing in him a possible rival.
It was through the help of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, a German princess married to the brother of the Tsar, that Rubinstein achieved his first outstanding success as an adult, at first as her protégé in St. Petersburg. By 1854 he had resumed his career as a virtuoso, and at the end of the decade he established, under the patronage, the Russian Musical Society, followed, in 1862, by the St. Petersburg Conservatory, of which he was the first director. He relinquished office in 1867, and resumed it briefly between 1887 and 1890. He died in 1894.
Anton Rubinstein devoted much of his energy to concert performance as one of the greatest pianists of his day, to conducting, and to composition. As a pianist his repertoire was enormous, his style and appearance giving rise to the improbable rumour that he was the illegitimate son of Beethoven. His work in St. Petersburg involved him in conducting concerts for the Russian Musical Society that might serve as a model of German taste, as opposed to the wilder attempts of Balakirev’s rival Free Music School and its endeavours towards musical nationalism. His brother Nikolay Rubinstein, a player of comparable ability, was similarly involved in the Russian Musical Society and the Conservatory in Moscow.
The Violin Concerto in G, Opus 46, written in 1857, when Rubinstein was 28, at a time when the establishment of a professional Conservatory in Russia was under discussion, is unjustly neglected. There is nothing particularly Russian about the work, which shows the fine craftsmanship of a Mendelssohn and an undoubtedly professional technical command of structure and orchestration. The three movements of the concerto provide an admirable opportunity for virtuoso performance.
Don Quixote, a musical picture after Cervantes, was written in 1870, the year before Rubinstein’s period as conductor of the Philharmonic concerts in Vienna and a subsequent American tour with Wieniawski. The work has a clear enough narrative intention, from the chivalrous ambitions of Don Quixote, his love for the imagined Dulcinea del Toboso, through various mistaken adventures to his death, a moment of final pathos.
Rubinstein shows us Don Quixote’s awakening ambitions, as he reads romances of chivalry, dons his rusty armour and mounts his steed Rocinante. A flock of sheep, mistaken for an army, is routed, and there is an encounter with three village women, one of whom seems to Don Quixote to be his lady, Dulcinea. The women laugh at him and run away, leading him to suppose that he needs to prove his valour further. Don Quixote extends unexpected clemency to a gang of prisoners condemned to the galleys, and they repay him by beating and robbing him. His complaints at the ingratitude of the criminals lead him to forswear chivalry, and he returns home, to die in the presence of his friends, his niece and his house-keeper.
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