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8.223894 - RUBINSTEIN: Piano Works
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Anton Grigor’yevich Rubinstein (1829-1894)

Six Etudes, Op.23 • Six Barcarolles

"I am thought to be Russian by Germans, and German by Russians," Anton Rubinstein once sighed. Indeed, early study and concert tours abroad, the influence of Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn, Chopin and Liszt, and teaching in Vienna all left their mark on this most cosmopolitan of nineteenth-century Russian composers. His long resistance to folk and national themes comes as no surprise.

Rubinstein began his career as a piano prodigy at the age of eleven, received by royalty and an adoring public across Europe. In 1849 he returned to Russia, leaving again in 1854 to embark on concert tours as an adult. At the height of his career, his only rival in public acclaim was Liszt himself. In 1859 he turned to conducting, and co-founded the Russian Musical Society. Three years later he organized the St Petersburg Conservatory, and headed it for five years. After a season in Vienna as conductor of the Philharmonic Concerts, and another fifteen years abroad as a touring virtuoso and conductor, he resumed leadership of the Conservatory. His death in 1894 was mourned in every musical quarter.

Today, Rubinstein’s reputation rests on the phenomenal success he enjoyed as a pianist, conductor, and master organizer of Russian musical enterprise, his achievements duplicated in Moscow by his younger brother Nikolay. Between them, the model for a century of Russian musical training was put into place. Near-forgotten are 150 compositions, these including works for symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra, voice, and some twenty operas. Most of these works have found their way to obscurity, dismissed as light and prolix, and not without justification. In Rubinstein’s music for solo piano, however, some deeper currents may be found.

Here, on the instrument to which he was born, may be heard some of his most idiomatic and powerful conceptions. Though of manic difficulty, they also bear touches of maturity and reflection which contradict those who claim that, as, with Mendelssohn, it all came too easily.

Consider the Six Etudes, Op. 23, written between 1849 and 1850. Like the cycles of so many other composers, they were designed to exploit the capacities of piano and pianist both, and stretch each to the furthest limits. Rubinstein meets this obligation, gleefully.

Etude No. 1 is an Allegro in the key of F major, and a study in the art of lucid arpeggiation. Against a rather simple melody in long notes Rubinstein devises a Niagara of rapid broken chords. From time to time he engages in unexpected modulations, often signalling a new voicing of these continuing figures. Near the end, he transforms them into great scalar sweeps, and at last into parallel octaves of tremendous drive.

Etude No. 2, marked Allegro vivace, is a C major work of appalling difficulty. Here, the composer enters a realm of parallel thirds, fourths, sixths and octaves. He does this in both hands, above a churning engine of rapid-fire semi- and demisemiquavers. In the middle comes a melodic refrain built on rising triads in the left hand over which running parallel figures are sustained, this a clever re-evaluation of the study’s purpose, and a deeply practical way of allowing the player to pull back and prepare for a finale of even greater speed and challenge.

Etude No. 3, Moderato assai, is unanticipated in mood and key. Just as we thought that Rubinstein was drawing his études in a circle of fifths, the third of them is in C sharp minor and utterly different from its predecessors. The discipline of this étude lies in its instruction to draw out, to place in relief and silhouette, a simple melody against a drop of thick and recurring chords. As this technique nears tedium, we are delighted by a complete change in feeling, a moonlit melody graced by a widening arc of the same chords in expansion, and now in the major key. It is an enchanting passage, but clouds gather and we return to the first dark night. One twist remains: at the last, the major key’s light returns and so the étude softens to its end.

Etude No. 4 is also given as Moderato assai and in E flat major, the enharmonic equivalent of D sharp major, a whole tone above the third étude, and thus a novel key pattern is developed. The fourth étude is a wholesome exercise in cake decoration.

Etude No. 5, Presto, in F major, is a high-voltage alternating current of chords that must be kept in absolutely strict rhythmic exchange, hand over hand.

Etude No. 6 ends the set in a glowing G major, Moderato con moto. It is a highly sophisticated variant on the nineteenth-century practice of putting the melody in the middle of the keyboard, often played by the thumbs, while the accompaniment flashes outward like a radiant pinwheel.

A barcarolle is a Venetian boat-song whose duple metre suggests the two-stroke of the gondoliers, working their barge poles among the famous canals. Many composers, Chopin, Fauré, Mendelssohn, and Schubert among them, wrote barcarolles. In Russia, the genre was adapted by Balakirev and Glazunov, and given new voice by Rubinstein. Unlike the Etudes of Opus 23, however, they were written separately over a span of many years.

The Barcarolle in F minor, Op. 30, No. 1, marked Tempo moderato and written in 1852, may be read as an ABA’ form in which the outer components bear a song of eloquent sadness, simply stated in the first passage, with the melody put in the left hand and made more decorative in the second. The B section is, contrastingly, much brighter, more imperative, and rhythmically constant.

The Barcarolle in A minor, Op. 45, Moderato assai, is a written-out improvisation. A simple theme, perhaps provided by someone in a Rubinstein audience, is displayed in one voice and then commented upon with increasing facility, conversing in minor and major keys as it goes.

Rubinstein’s Barcarolle in G minor, Op. 50, No. 3, Moderato con moto, continues the ABA pattern, but here the melody is rhythmically alert, dotted and leaping. In wonderful tone-painting we see a shimmering waterscape in rapid figuration, and then make quiet return to shadow.

In the Barcarolle in G major, without opus number and taken Allegretto con moto, is a charming and étude-like examination of parallel thirds, rising and falling along simple scales, and centred in its middle by a brief reflection on new melody.

The Barcarolle in A minor, Op. 93, No. 4, Tempo moderato, is a moody contemplation of the idea of the falling second: minor, major, and chromatic, occasionally counter-balanced by the rising second found in a continuing trill.

The last Barcarolle in C minor, Op. 104, No. 4, Moderato con moto, is the longest and most elaborate of the set. Completed in 1885, the work is free-form: rhapsodic, open, harmonically adventuresome. Though one principal melody is the core of each development, it serves primarily to explore the whole range in sonic possibility of the modern pianoforte. Not for Rubinstein the long-standing rules of statement and augmentation. Rather he reminds us in this final work of the extraordinary gifts he brought as pianist to every musical undertaking. He gives us form sufficient to the purpose of sound for its own sake: changing, rich, ringing, and heroically alive.

Dr. Charles Barber

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