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8.555590 - RUBINSTEIN, A.: Symphony No. 3 / Eroica Fantasia (Slovak Radio Symphony, Stankovsky)
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Anton Rubinstein (1829 - 1894)

Anton Rubinstein (1829 - 1894)

Symphony No. 3 in A major, Op. 56 • Eroica Fantasia, Op. 110

It was Gustav Mahler who described himself as three times homeless: a Bohemian in Austria; an Austrian among Germans; a Jew throughout the whole world. The nineteenth century provided chances for Jewish assimilation into a Gentile world. The Jewish poet Heine described baptism as a ticket of admission into European culture, and it was a course chosen by some, such as the Mendelssohn family and in Russia by the Rubinsteins. Nevertheless, as Jewish fortunes prospered, anti-Semitism became more overt. There is no doubt that Anton Rubinstein’s reputation suffered because of his racial origins, much as it suffered among Russian nationalists as a result of his obviously cosmopolitan or German musical proclivities.

Anton Rubinstein was born at Vikhvatinets in the Podolsk district of the Russian Empire, on the borders of Moldavia, in 1829. A few years later his family moved to Moscow, and after early instruction on the piano from his mother he took lessons from a teacher there, Villoing, later to be the teacher of his brother Nikolay. He gave his first public concert in Moscow at the age of ten. There followed four years of touring as a child virtuoso, years that took him to Paris, to Scandinavia, Austria and Germany, and to London, where he played for Queen Victoria. In 1844 the family settled in Berlin, where Rubinstein took lessons in harmony and counterpoint from Glinka’s former teacher, the Prussian royal music librarian Siegfried Dehn.

In 1846 Rubinstein’s father died and the rest of the family returned to Russia, while he remained abroad in Vienna and in Pressburg (the modern Bratislava), earning a living as he could by teaching and cynical about the support that the apparently generous Liszt seemed to offer, which took the form of a visit to his garret in Vienna, with his entourage of disciples. As a pianist Rubinstein rivalled Liszt in fame, and the latter spoke of him with grudging respect as a composer and player, a clever fellow, but unduly influenced by the classicism of Mendelssohn, adding a less charitable description of him as the pseudo-Musician of the future on the occasion of a visit to Weimar in 1854 for the first performance of his opera Sibirskiye okhotniki (The Siberian Huntsmen).

Rubinstein’s fortunes had changed as a result of a meeting with members of the Russian Imperial family during the course of an earlier visit to Paris. On his return to Russia in the winter of 1848 he found support from the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, a German princess and sister-in-law of the Tsar. With her active encouragement he established in 1859 the Russian Musical Society and three years later the St Petersburg Conservatory, of which he remained director until 1867, before resuming his career as a travelling virtuoso. He returned to his position in St Petersburg in 1887, after years during which he had won general acclaim as perhaps the leading pianist of his time. He died at Peterhof in 1894. Russia, of course, owed him a great debt, not only for the professional concert-life of St Petersburg but for the provision of the possibility of sound professional musical training, on which later generations were to build. The nationalists under Balakirev, however, remained generally hostile, an antipathy that he rashly answered in kind with a not entirely unjustified accusation of amateurism. Rubinstein himself was all too professional and too cosmopolitan for what was becoming the taste of the time. He had immense facility and technical competence as a composer, lacking the uneven qualities of the nationalists, but lacking too their overwhelming enthusiasm for the purely national and never, therefore, convincingly Russian. Here his own words prefigure those of Mahler: in Russia he seemed a German, in Germany a Russian.

Rubinstein completed the third of his six symphonies in 1855. Scored for an orchestra with pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets and timpani, with four horns and strings, it opens with a firm statement of the first subject by the strings, answered by a C sharp minor woodwind passage. The subject is developed, leading to a more lyrical second subject. There is an inventive central development, with winning clarinet and oboe solos and much use of sequence derived from the principal subject before the return of the original key and first theme in recapitulation, the complementary woodwind passage now optimistically transformed. The A minor second movement Adagio starts with the plucked strings, to which a solo clarinet adds a Russian enough melody. A second expressive melody is introduced by the cello, and the material is developed, suggesting at times Tchaikovsky, particularly in the opening clarinet melody, and at other times Rachmaninov, not least in the later treatment of the second theme. There is an F major Scherzo, started by the lower strings, and a lilting Trio, material from both used in the final coda. The last movement opens emphatically and continues at times in a manner of which Mendelssohn would have approved, although lacking his economy of material and lightness of touch. Nevertheless the movement is worked out in fine symphonic style, to finish with the necessary panache.

The Third Symphony was included in a memorial concert in honour of Rubinstein and conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov. It was while preparing for this concert that the latter delivered a characteristically hostile judgement on Rubinstein’s work: if, when you are listening to something you do not know, you have the feeling that it is either bad Beethoven or poorly orchestrated Mendelssohn, and if, at the same time, it never strikes you as absolutely tasteless or ugly, but, on the other hand, there is nothing daring about it - everything seems proper and decent, even if hopelessly monotonous - then you may be sure you are listening to one of Rubinstein’s many works of this kind. Listening to the Third Symphony a hundred years or more after the composer’s death it is possible to admire much. There is, after all, faultless craftsmanship coupled with apt if controlled melodic invention.

The Eroica Fantasia was written in 1884 and calls for an orchestra that includes, in addition to the normal complement of wind and string instruments, a piccolo, two cornets, three trombones and tuba and a percussion section of tam-tam, tambourine, side-drum, bass drum, cymbals and timpani. The Fantasia starts boldly, with a clear-cut F major theme, suitably treated. A darker-hued F minor violin melody follows, over a busy viola counterpoint. This leads to a brighter C major episode, with a Russian enough tune offered by the bassoon, with tambourine accompaniment, to be taken up by the clarinet, and then by oboe, flute and bassoon, followed by the rest of the orchestra. The darker episode returns, the opening cello melody accompanied by the viola counterpoint. The material of the opening returns, now in A flat, to be followed by the return of the second episode, introduced by the viola, with its accompanying figuration, followed by a clarinet melody. The strings, with tambourine in attendance, now reintroduce the third episode folk-dance, in the key of G flat major. The second episode melody, now with cello accompaniment, returns, offered first by the oboe. Elements of all three themes now appear, in fragmentary form, and the heroic hymn of triumph is announced by the strings, followed by the full orchestra in more overtly grandiose style. There is a pause, and the sound of the tam-tam echoes, to be followed by a brief introduction, a reference to the second melody from the woodwind and a solemn march. It is this march that brings the Fantasia to a hushed end, in which the triumph of the opening is forgotten in a sombre dead march.

Keith Anderson


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