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8.223176 - RUBINSTEIN: Album de Peterhof, Op. 75

Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894)
Ablum de Peterhof, Op. 75


Anton Rubinstein was one of 19th century’s most charismatic music figures. Rivalled at the keyboard only by Liszt, he was near the last in a line of pianist-composers that climaxed with Liszt, Busoni, and Rachmaninov. Like them, Rubinstein’s reputation as a composer in his day was much more controversial than his reputation as a performer. But unlike them, his vast compositional output, much of it containing music of beauty and originality, still remains relatively unexplored territory.

Rubinstein was born of Slavic-Jewish-German descent in the small Russian village of Vekvatinets, about 100 miles northwest of Odessa, on the 28th of November, 1829. He was the third in a family of six. The family moved in 1834 to Moscow, where Anton’s father set up a pencil factory. Anton at first studied piano from his mother, then when eights year of age was entrusted to Alexandre Villoing, a prominent teacher who had been a pupil of John Field. Child prodigies were then all the rage in Europe, so in 1839 Villoing took his gifted young protégé first to Paris, then for concerts in other parts of Europe and England. Although some notice was take of Anton, financially the tour barely paid for itself, and a return was made to Moscow in 1843.

It was decided the following year that Anton, his gifted younger brother Nicholas and their sister Luba should be taken to Berlin for further serious study. For the next two years Anton had counterpoint and harmony lessons with Siegfried Dehn, a former teacher of Glinka’s. Both the brothers also paid weekly Sunday afternoon visits to Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer when they held open house.

Anton’s father, who had remained in Moscow, died unexpectedly in 1846. Remembering a cordial meeting with Liszt in Paris, Anton went to Vienna to seek Liszt’s help and advice. But the usually generous Liszt showed indifference. It was a slight that Rubinstein would later choose to overlook, but never entirely forget. For the two years Rubinstein lived in poverty while scraping out a bare income by teaching privately, before returning to Russia in 1848.

Rubinstein’s fortunes abruptly changed with his being engaged by the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, sister-in-law to Czar Nicholas, as her official “Chmaber Virtuoso” and accompanist to the court singers. For the next six years Rubinstein played at elegant parties, practiced, and composed copiously.

His concert career finally began in earnest in 1854 when he embarked on what became a highly acclaimed four-year extended European tour. Eager publishers and audiences seemed now to be everywhere. Rubinstein patched up his relationship with Liszt during a half-year visit to Weimar, and as well began a close lifelong musical and personal friendship with Saint-Saëns in Paris.

When Rubinstein returned home to St. Petersburg, both he and the Grand Duchess Pavlovna decided upon sweeping changes for improving Russia’s musical education system. Through their sponsorship, and with Rubinstein serving as conductor, the Russian Musical Society was founded in 1859. Then in 1862 he founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the first such school in Russia, and served as Director until 1867. In 1865 Rubinstein married Vera Tschekouanoff, the daughter of a Russian general. She would bear him two sons and a daughter, none of whom had any serious musical inclinations.

Rubinstein and the Conservatory soon encountered hostility from the so-called “Mighty Five”—Balakirev, the leader, and Borodin, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky. With the group’s aggressive championing of nationalistic Russian music, Rubinstein was strongly distrusted for his essentially Germanic, cosmopolitan musical outlook. He wryly lamented that in Germany he was called a Russian, and in Russia a Jew.

From 1867 until 1870 Rubinstein’s extended tours throughout Europe consolidated his reputation as the greatest pianist alive after Liszt. The Steinway firm became interested in bringing him to America. After protracted negotiations, he was engaged during the 1872–73 season for a tour of 215 concerts in 239 days. The tour was shared with the Polish violinist Henryk Wieniawski and a troupe of singers and other instrumentalists.

Rubinstein capped the tour in New York City with a final seven solo concerts in nine days. In his autobiography he writes: “The receipts and the success were invariably gratifying, but it was all so tedious that I began to despise myself and my art”.

For the next 15 years Rubinstein would continue his career as not only a legendary pianist and respected conductor, but also as a prolific, if controversial composer. His European concertising largely ended with a series of farewell concerts in 1885–87. In every city on the tour Rubinstein performed his famous series of seven historical recitals, each program being devoted to a different composer or period. Settling once more in Russia, he resumed from 1887–91 the directorship of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Here one evening each week for 32 weeks he lectured and performed a new program for the students. He also drastically tightened standards by immediately dismissing 25 percent of the students admitted under the previous slack admission standards. In 1889 his jubilee and birthday were celebrated at the same time with great festivity in Russia. After a final temporary move to Dresden from 1891 to 1894, where for a time he taught Josef Hofmann, he returned to Russia. A final concert was given on January 14, 1894 in St. Petersburg before his death at age 65 of heart disease on November 28th of the same year.

Rubinstein was one of the most prolific composers of the 19th century, with a catalog of works ranging from several hundred solo piano compositions, to concertos, symphonies, chamber music, operas, choral works, and songs. Much of his piano music was written for his own concert use, and shows a corresponding virtuoso display coupled with the melodic lyricism for which his playing was noted.

The Album de Peterhof was composed in 1866, and forms a musical picture album of memories and impressions. Peterhof was a favourite summer retreat of Rubinstein’s. Located 12 miles west of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, it would be here that Rubinstein in 1874 would build his datcha (or wooden villa). Summers would be spent at Peterhof with his family. Here, also, he would eventually die.

The moods of the pieces range from a powerful and somber Funeral March (No. 3), to a brilliant set of variations on a four-bar Russian folk song (No. 4), to a barcarolle-like Nocturne (No. 8), and finally to a closing brilliant Scherzo (No. 12).

Keith Anderson

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