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8.223177 - RUBINSTEIN: Soirees Musicales, Op. 109
Anton Rubinstein was one of 19th century's most charismatic music figures. Rivaled 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 Vekhvatinets, 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 eight years 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 taken 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 Lúba 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 "Chamber Virtuoso" and accompanist to the court singers. For the next six years Rubinstein played at elegant parties, practised, 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 Véra 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 concertizing 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 nine pieces forming the Soirées musicales, Op. 109 were written in 1884. Each of the set is dedicated to a pianist of the day. Among the more remembered ones are Sophie Menter (1846-1918), the famous German pianist and a star of Liszt's class; Francis Planté (1839-1934), the incredibly long-lived French pianist; Louis Diémer (1843-1919), the distinguished French pianist and influential teacher of Cortot; Robert Casadesus, and others; and Eugène d'Albert (1864-1932), Liszt's "Little Giant" and later a composer of note. Menter's piece, entitled Prélude, opens the set, and is appropriately fiery and passionate, as supposedly was Menter herself. Planté's Badinages is actually a set of nine small pieces of great wit, charm and brilliance. The mood of the Theme varié is more classically restrained, perhaps in deference to Diémer himself, who was a somewhat intellectual performer with a strong interest in early French music. The final piece of the entire Soirées musicales is dedicated to d'Albert. Fittingly enough, it is a fiery Etude for double notes and octaves that the then 20-year old virtuoso must have adored.
Born in the United States, part of Banowetz's early training was received in New York City with Carl Friedberg, a pupil of Clara Schumann. After continuing his studies at Vienna's Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, Banowetz's career was launched upon his graduating with a First Prize in piano. He was then sent by the Austrian government on an extended European concert tour. Subsequently he has performed throughout North America, Europe, Russia, Asia, New Zealand, and Australia.
Following his first appearances in the Orient in 1981, Banowetz's tours there have received ever-increasing enthusiastic response. He is the first foreign artist ever to be invited by the Chinese Ministry of Culture both to record and to give world premiere performances of a contemporary Chinese piano concerto (Huang An-lun Piano Concerto, Op. 25b). Banowetz has recorded with the Czechoslovak Radio Symphony, the Budapest Symphony, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the China Central Opera Orchestra of Beijing.
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