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8.570941 - RUBINSTEIN, A.: Piano Music (1871-1890) (Banowetz) - Theme and Variations / Akrostichon No. 2

Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894)
Piano Music (1871–1890)


In the history of Russian music Anton Rubinstein remains a towering figure. During his lifetime he was regarded as perhaps the only pianist worthy to be compared with Liszt, and enjoyed an international reputation as a composer. Despite his prolific output, much of his music remains tragically ignored to this day.

Rubinstein was born on 28 November 1829 to a Jewish family of German-Polish origin in the village of Vikhvatinets, in Bessarabia. He received his first musical training from his mother, and later studied with the Moscow pianist and teacher Aleksandr Villuan (Villoing). As a child prodigy Rubinstein’s reputation spread rapidly across Europe and his Paris début in the Salle Erard in 1841 was attended by Liszt, Chopin, Kalkbrenner and Meyerbeer. In 1842 he made his début in London, where he was heard by the distinguished pianist and composer Ignaz Moscheles, who marveled at the young man’s gifts. Rubinstein’s early musical experiences were defined by cosmopolitanism and in particular, a special reverence for the Germanic tradition.

Following a successful concert tour of Europe in 1844, Rubinstein was encouraged by Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer to study composition in Berlin under Siegfried Dehn. Returning to Russia in 1848, he caught the attention of the Grand Duchess Helena Pavlovna, sister-in-law of the Tsar, who invited him to come to her palace on Kamenniy-ostrov (Rocky Island) to accompany singers in her salon. In 1854 Rubinstein once again engaged in an extended European tour with the dual ambitions of establishing himself as a composer of international stature and to acquire the requisite status and accolades to realise his vision of establishing an academy for the professional training of Russian musicians. Following his return to St Petersburg in 1858 he was appointed Imperial Concert Director and granted a lifetime pension.

In 1860 Rubinstein created the Russian Musical Society, and then, in 1862, founded the St Petersburg Conservatory. Rubinstein would also, together with his brother Nikolay, co-found the Moscow Conservatory in 1866. Despite his tireless work advancing the cause of Russian music, he earned the life-long animosity of Balakirev and his circle as a result of his publishing an article in the German journal Blätter für Musik Theater und Kunst in which he dismissed the possibility of creating a Russian school of composition based on folksong. Throughout his life Rubinstein worked at a superhuman pace, serving as administrator, private tutor, producing quantities of new compositions and travelling widely as itinerant international virtuoso. On his 1872–73 American tour he played 215 concerts in 239 days, sometimes three concerts in three cities in one day. Contemporary reviewers would continually acclaim Rubinstein’s prowess as a pianist and his programmes regularly featured an enormous range of repertoire from Bach to the latest music of his contemporaries.

During the last two decades of his life Rubinstein maintained his punishing schedule of activity, returning to Russia to teach again at the Conservatory. In 1891 he would tour Europe one last time, where despite failing eye-sight and a worsening heart condition, he continued to give concerts. In his final year he returned to his estate near St Petersburg, on the shores of the Baltic, where he died in November 1894 a few days short of his 65th birthday.

Rubinstein composed his Theme and Variations in G, Op. 88 in 1871 at the end of an extraordinarily productive period, contemporaneous with his most successful opera, The Demon. At nearly fifty minutes in length, the Theme and Variations make up one of the composer’s major works for solo piano, and were highly regarded by Liszt, Bülow and Busoni. The composer also thought highly of this demanding score, including it on the programme of his last solo recital appearance in St Petersburg in January 1894. Taking inspiration from Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13, Rubinstein uses his theme as a unifying element to tie the variations together as a whole. The work begins with a Lento introduction of left-hand octaves, with a characteristic sixteenth-note (semiquaver) pick-up that outlines the basic melodic and rhythmic shape of Theme proper. The tempo increases to Allegro moderato and the Theme appears in its entirety, harmonized with rich, full chords in the lower registers of the piano. Following classical models, Rubinstein constructs each of the variations on a single musical figuration, thus Variation 1 (Allegro), is a constant sequence of sixteenth notes; Variation II in E minor (Andante con moto) presents the theme as a singing melody in the right hand, accompanied by delicate tracery of arpeggiated chords; Variation III in C major (Tempo di marcia) begins as a dignified march, with a contrasting middle section in octaves for both hands before returning to the opening material and Variation IV in C minor (Andante con moto), is a murmuring intermezzo in 12/8. Variation V in G major (Moderato assai—Allegro) presents a change of direction, beginning with a recitative in dialogue, built from motifs of the theme before blossoming into a gentle sequence of running sixteenth notes in 6/8 time. Variation VI in G minor (Vivace) shifts into the parallel minor and is characterized by a consistent dotted rhythm, while Variation VII (Moderato assai) draws its inspiration from Schumann’s syncopation and metrical displacements. The expansive Variation VIII in E flat minor (Moderato con moto) has an almost Baroque grandeur, including trills, tremolandi and pedal points while Variation IX in B major (Moderato) harks back to the world of Chopin’s Nocturnes. The next two variations—X in B minor (Con moto) and XI in D major (Allegro) are unified in the mood throughout, with full chord and octaves in the Tenth Variation and gently rippling sixteenth-note triplets in the Eleventh. In comparison with the preceding variations, the work’s conclusion, Variation XII (Allegro moderato) is nearly symphonic in scope. Beginning with a grandiose statement of the theme in full chords that span the keyboard, Rubinstein then launches into a lengthy fugato. The opening notes of the theme become the focus of more vigorous passagework, culminating in a series of triplet chords hammered out over a running sixteenth-note bass line. The piece ends powerfully at opposite ends of the keyboard, bringing Rubinstein’s epic variations to a deeply satisfying conclusion.

variations to a deeply satisfying conclusion. In contrast to the epic scale of the G major Theme and Variations, the late Akrostichon No. 2, Op. 114 (1890), provides a welcome respite. This cycle of five pleasant, salon pieces displays Rubinstein’s natural gift for shaping long, lyrical lines. As was the case with the Akrostichon No. 1, Op. 37, Rubinstein entitled each movement with a letter in the dedicatee’s name—S-O-F-I-A, in honour of Sophie Poznańska, a pupil of Rubinstein around this time. The set begins with a wistful Andante con moto, in F minor. In the Allegretto, in D flat major (No. 2), a strongly etched melody alternates with characteristic figuration, giving the piece a fluid, improvisatory feel. In No. 3, marked Tempo di mazurka, the rhythms of that dance are gently evoked before departing into pianistic pyrotechnics. The C minor Adagio (No. 4) is another free-flowing narrative, beginning with a slightly exotic parlando melody, alternating with folk-like dance interludes. In the concluding piece, Allegro non troppo, Rubinstein returns to the idol of his youth, Mendelssohn, to provide a feather-light interlude brimming with melody as well as difficult chromatic sixths in the right hand.

Joshua Cheek

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