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8.223847 - RUBINSTEIN: Kamenniy-ostrov, Vol. 2
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Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894)
Kamennïy-ostrov (24 Portraits), Opus 10 • Volume 2


Among spectacular figures on the musical scene in the nineteenth century there was none to challenge Anton Rubinstein, the ‘King of Fortepianists’ as he was called by excited admirers. Only the great Liszt aroused a comparable frenzy of adulation. Rubinstein was born on 28 November 1829 in the village of Vikhvatinets, in Bessarabia. In the early 1830s his family moved to Moscow. His mother gave him systematic daily lessons consisting mostly of teaching pieces by popular composers of the time, Czerny, Clementi, Hummel, Moscheles, and Kalkbrenner. By the age of eight he had begun studies with the Moscow pianist and teacher, Aleksandr Villuan, known in the West by the French form of his name, Villoing. Lessons were, in Rubinstein’s words ‘not so much instruction as a complete musical training.’ His responsiveness to the teaching regime brought about his début in 1839, at the age of ten, followed by a concert tour in the eastern cities. At his début in Paris in the Salle Erard in 1841 Liszt, Chopin, Kalkbrenner and Meyerbeer were in the audience and his performances were acclaimed by famous composers and critics alike. In 1842, he performed in London. Here Rubinstein caught the attention of that keen and sagacious observer and revered composer, Ignaz Moscheles, who in his diary 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.’ He also visited Holland, Germany and Sweden.

In 1844, following the suggestion and advice of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, the young Rubinstein went to Berlin and devoted himself to the study of composition under the celebrated teacher Siegfried-Wilhelm Dehn. From 1846 to 1848 he earned a living teaching in Vienna, pursuing his own studies at the same time, returning in the latter year to St Petersburg. Here his playing was eventually noticed by the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, sister-in-law of the Tsar, who invited him to come to her palace on Kamennïy-ostrov (Rocky Island) to accompany singers during her musical soirees. This connection changed Rubinstein’s life. The Grand Duchess Elena became his most zealous patron. During that period, Rubinstein was able to produce three symphonies, five operas (Dmitry Donskoy, The Siberian Hunters, Stenka Razin, Hadji-Abrek and Tom the Fool), three piano concertos, nearly fifty songs, and many works for solo piano, including the set of 24 portraits, published under the title Kamennïy-osfrov.

In 1854 Rubinstein decided to go abroad again, with the aim of establishing himself in Europe as a composer, before returning home with the requisite ‘authority’ as an established figure. The following eight years he devoted to study and composition and when, at the end of that period, he visited Hamburg and other German cities, giving performances and publishing his accumulated compositions, he won wide recognition and acclaim. His growing fame was speedily recognized and enthusiastically applauded all over Europe. In February 1861 his German opera Die Kinder der Heide (The Children of the Heath) was produced under his personal supervision in Vienna with distinguished success. A year later he produced another popular German opera, Feramors. Although he continued to tour and enjoy great success in Europe, Rubinstein chose to return in 1858 to St Petersburg and, after a series of brilliant concerts in that city and Moscow, settled in the former capital, where he was appointed Imperial Concert director with a life pension.

From then on Rubinstein devoted himself with industry and enthusiasm to the advancement of music in Russia. In association with Carl Schuberth in 1862 he founded the St Petersburg Conservatory, having in the previous year established the Russian Musical Society. He subsequently made several triumphant tours of the European capitals; in 1869 he was ennobled by the Russian Tsar with the decoration of St Vladimir, and in 1871 and 1872 he conducted the Philharmonic Concerts and Choral Society in Vienna. He visited London in 1869, 1876, 1877 and 1881, achieving unbounded success. Rubinstein visited America in 1872, making his first appearance in New York on 23rd September. During the ensuing winter and spring he gave concerts in all the leading cities of the United States, as far west as the Mississippi, and was received with an enthusiasm seldom accorded to a foreign virtuoso. A Boston newspaper described Rubinstein: ‘Rather under medium size, he is almost awkward in his carriage. His features are homely, but his face is the face of genius, and lights up with a noble and majestic expression when he is playing. He wore no gloves, and was dressed with careless, though not negligent, simplicity. His manner much resembles that of Liszt, and the resemblance is heightened by the heavy, bushy head of hair which Rubinstein allows to grow in profusion, and which gives to his face something also of the aspect of Beethoven.’

Rubinstein experienced universal adulation during the last two decades of his life. He took Europe by storm, leaving the critics running out of superlatives. He performed everything from Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue to Beethoven’s last sonatas, to contemporary concertos by friends and colleagues such as Saint-Saëns. When not performing, he set himself an absolutely punishing schedule of composition.

With 119 numbered works and over seventy without opus number, Rubinstein’s output shows an absolutely astonishing creativity. His best-known works include the ‘Ocean’ Symphony, the operas The Demon and Nero. His oratorios, which he called ‘sacred operas’, include Tower of Babel and Paradise Lost, and there are songs of noticeable charm, such as Der Asra, and the Twelve Persian Songs, Op. 34. The Piano Concerto No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 70 was played by almost every pianist of any reputation, and, of course, there are his piano works, too numerous to list, which, to this day are recorded and performed.

In 1890, towards the end of his life, the Rubinstein Competition was established for composers and pianists. A year later, living in Dresden, he was suffering from worsening eyesight, forcing him to use a stick to move about. He also experienced chest pains and breathlessness. Rubinstein’s iron constitution was crumbling. His mother died in 1891 and he had no energy to return home for the funeral. Nevertheless, he continued to conduct, perform for charitable causes, and teach. Despite his medical problems, Rubinstein showed little outward signs of slowing down. In fact, there is ample testimony to the continuing magic and fire in his playing from this time. Upon returning to his Peterhof estate, on the Baltic share near St Petersburg, he continued his work régime. Anton Rubinstein died on 20th November 1894 and was buried eight days later, on his 65th birthday, to widespread public mourning.

This volume contains the second half of the 24 portraits, Rubinstein published under the title Kamennïy-osfrov. Opus 10 [the first volume can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223846]. The piano pieces were composed between 1853 and 1854 at Kamennïy-osfrov, the palace of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna. The commissioned work is actually a series of musical portraits of members of her court According to Jaroslaw de Zielinski, ‘The favour and recognition bestowed upon Rubinstein in the highest circles of Russian aristocracy left an indelible impression on his smaller piano compositions. These genial genre pictures reveal the luxury and refinement of elegant society, but the impressions, thoughts and passions kept in check by good manners retain the glow of the fire which is merely covered with ashes.’ Like so many of Rubinstein’s shorter piano pieces, these works are personal impressions, often full of brilliance and charm.

The last twelve in the set are presented on this disc. Since these works were written as social portraits, every one of them shows undeniable influences of the popular composers of that time—Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Stephen Heller, Ferdinand Hiller, Joachim Raff, Ignaz Moscheles, John Field, Mikhail Glinka, and Henri Herz, and Frédéric Kalkbrenner. This in no way lessens the value of these short works, but rather shows how flexible he could be. According to his biographer, Catherine Drinker Bowen, ‘The world smiles now at Kamennïy-ostrov, calling it dated, facile, Victorian. Yet the world continues to play this music; radio organ and orchestral triangle sound those far cathedral bells, and tired people in living rooms, picture palace and church, feeling once more the summer enchantment, the green peace of a northern island—and sigh with innocent, comfortable nostalgia.’

This second volume of Kamennïy-ostrov begins with the thirteenth piece in the set, marked Moderato assai. Although it has some Mendelssohnian touches, Rubinstein’s Slavic style pervades. Next we encounter a playful Moderato. Rubinstein creates a humoresque, surrounding a plaintive, reflective middle section marked con espressione. The barcarolle-like Allegretto, number fifteen in the set, has a very Russian character. The middle section is a precursor to the better known Rêve angélique (No. 22), with a Mendelssohnian central section.

Although the sixteenth character-piece, Allegro, has a serious section interspersed by restrained passion, it is basically wistful and capricious. The seventeenth piece, Allegro non troppo, is a lovely work, reminding us of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Word. The eighteenth, marked Allegro non troppo, is a very beautiful romanza, full of Russian passion. Rubinstein seems to depict a whimsical horse-ride in the nineteenth (Agitato), in the middle section of which, rider and horse trot. The reminiscence of a past love is echoed in the twentieth piece in the set (Allegretto con moto), with all the passion and tender moments love can bring. Bell-like chords introduce the twenty-first (Moderato assai) but it quickly turns into a rustic dance. The middle section is a Slavic-sounding leisurely tarantella.

Next is the most famous piece in the set, marked Andante, and the only composition among the twenty-four to have achieved world fame and adulation. One publisher’s flight of fancy bestowed on this work the title, Rêve angêlique (Angelic Dream), by which name it has appeared repeatedly in concert and on records. Rubinstein never provided such a title, nor the fanciful tale which was attached to it. When the work was recorded and distributed on a piano-roll by the Ampico Corporation, the following mythical programme was appended to the box: ‘We are told that this piece pictures the romantic attachment of Rubinstein for a lady of noble birth, probably Mlle Anna de Friedebourg to whom the work is dedicated, and that the music was suggested to him during a walk by the liver at sunset. The bell of a neighbouring convent was ringing, the waters were aglow with the setting sun. There Rubinstein walked with his love.’

The twenty-third piece is a charming boat-song, marked Moderato, that is both melancholy and passionate. One critic compared the twenty-fourth, and final piece of Kamennïy-ostrov, Allegro con moto to a lover calling on his love. Although there are passionate and serious moments in this piece, its overall prevailing mood is happy and joyous.

Victor and Marina A. Ledin

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