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8.223456 - RUBINSTEIN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2

Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Major, Op. 25 • Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 35


Anton Rubinstein was a towering figure of Russian musical life, and one of the 19th century’s most charismatic musical 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. His vast compositional output, much of it containing music of beauty and originality, still remains relatively unexplored territory. Rubinstein’s eight works for piano and orchestra span the last four and a half decades of his creative life. The five concertos were written from 1850–1874, and especially the Third, Fourth, and Fifth were frequently heard well into this century.

Rubinstein’s Concerto No.1, Op. 25, was written in 1850, then published in 1858. It is dedicated to Alexander Villoing, the composer’s principal piano teacher. Actually this work is Rubinstein’s fourth attempt at writing a concerto, for two earlier unpublished such works from 1849 are lost, and a third from the same year saw final publication as the Piano Octet, Op. 9. Although the First Concerto is the most traditional of the five concertos, a characteristic leonine quality in the piano scoring often emerges. The dramatic opening movement is cast in traditional sonata-form. After an extended orchestral exposition of the movement’s primary themes, the piano enters with a dotted-rhythm figuration which immediately introduces the movement’s principal theme, now boldly stated by the piano in chords and octaves. A lyrical second theme and a tarantella-like closing theme lead to a traditional developing, then re-stating, of previous material. The movement concludes with a massive coda that is typical virtuosic Rubinstein, yet which dramatically dies away in the last bars. The opening warm lyrical theme of the second movement is presented successively by the orchestra and piano, then is interrupted by a more dramatic and impassioned middle section, and finally is returned by the orchestra while being accompanied by rippling arpeggios on the piano. To act as a transition in mood, Rubinstein now has the orchestra introduce the third movement with a melody that, although not identical, resembles the main theme of the second movement. But the piano impatiently interrupts three times, and finally bursts out with the rollicking main theme of the movement. Heard in several guises and in the company of a number of other themes, it finally is brought back in the “wrong” keys of F and A-flat major. Rubinstein quickly shifts to the home tonality of E major before ending the First Concerto with a huge coda, replete with a stretch of unrelenting virtuoso octaves on the piano which must have daunted many a fledgling virtuoso of the day. The orchestra at the same time is heard in a march-like theme first given earlier in the movement which brings the work to a triumphant conclusion.

Although Rubinstein’s Concerto No. 2, Op. 35, was written but a year after the First Concerto, it emerged on an altogether larger scale both structurally and emotionally. Throughout Rubinstein’s writing there now is a much greater mastery of balance between the orchestra and piano, with textures and colours being more complex and richer. The scoring for both orchestra and piano is considerably more technically demanding and imaginative. Although the first movement is in sonata-form, Rubinstein tightens the feeling of structure by the omission of a traditional double stating of the principal themes by the orchestra and then the piano, and has the soloist enter not with the main opening theme, but with transitional material that leads fairly quickly into the rather melancholy second theme. He also adds a cadenza shortly before the end of the first movement which he begins surprisingly enough, yet nonetheless effectively, with a short fugato section. The coda is based on both the principal and closing themes, and has the piano ending the movement with an upward thrust of octaves similar to those used almost a quarter of a century later by Tchaikovsky at the end of his own First Concerto.

The emotional heart of the Second Concerto is to be found in the hauntingly expressive and intense second movement. After an opening section that gives the soloist near improvisatory passages marked “Tempo ad libitum, quasi praeludando”, a central section, which shows Rubinstein in his most majestic and noble mood, has a long horn solo supported by the orchestra and mountainous thick chords in the piano scoring. The opening dirge-like section recurs, then all ends darkly with slow piano arpeggios and two final muffled pizzicatos in the orchestra, The third movement immediately lightens up the seriousness of the preceding slow movement with a naïve, dance-like main theme presented by the piano. After several subsidiary themes and a developing of material, Rubinstein tightens the structure drastically by abbreviating the main theme’s return, and omitting a re-statement of secondary thematic material. He ends everything with a characteristic virtuosic display of alternating octaves for the pianist.

Joseph Banowetz

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