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Colin Clarke
Fanfare, January 2011

Joseph Banowetz might easily be thought of as an Anton Rubinstein specialist. He has, after all, recorded all of Rubinstein’s works for piano and orchestra for Naxos’s sister label, Marco Polo, plus four other discs of Rubinstein’s solo piano music. This is a worthy task, for while there is a grand total of some 50 recordings of Rubinstein’s famous Melody in F, very few other works recorded make even two different versions. The sheer dedication of Banowetz is remarkable, and his fine reading of these two works (both world premiere recordings) implies strongly that it is time for a reappraisal of Anton Rubinstein (1829–94). Banowetz is a pianist of some strength—clearly, he is no shrinking violet, anyway, and this robust approach coupled with exemplary finger clarity lends itself superbly to this repertoire.

The Theme and Variations, op. 88, dates from 1871 and lasts some 47 minutes in this performance. It is therefore a major work, and Banowetz certainly treats it as such. His respect for Rubinstein’s talent is evident in every measure he plays. The music itself might well come as something of a revelation, for the invention flows confidently and appealingly from Rubinstein’s pen. Moments of mystery are honored (try the recitative-like ruminations of the fifth variation). Most importantly, Banowetz provides just the right amount of fantasy. The range of the variations is wide, moving from Schumannesque innigkeit (variation 7) to Handelian grandeur viewed through a decidedly romantic telescope (the very next variation). The climax is formed by the 12th and final variation, lasting some 10 minutes. Banowetz whips the music up to a fulfilling, summatory statement. The recording is a trifle shallow and dry, perhaps, but the ear adjusts quickly.

The Akrostichon, op. 2, of 1890, stands in stark contrast. A set of five salon pieces (which together add up in duration to around 27 minutes), the op. 2 counterbalances the Theme and Variations perfectly. There is a spring-like freshness to the second (Allegretto) that is most appealing. All five pieces make for compelling listening, not least the individual, evocative solo lines of the fourth piece (Adagio).

This constitutes Volume 1 of what is presumably intended to be a complete edition of Rubinstein’s piano works, and I note that ArkivMusic is already listing (and highlighting, at the time of writing) Volume 2 (which contains Akrostichon No. 1; Two Pieces, op. 26; Souvenir de Dresde, op. 118; Two Melodies, op. 3; and the Sérénade russe in B Minor). I hope to hear the next installment in due course; in the meantime, Volume 1 provides ample cause for celebration.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, January 2011

RUBINSTEIN, A.: Piano Music (1871–1890) (Banowetz) – Theme and Variations / Akrostichon No. 2 8.570941
RUBINSTEIN, A.: Piano Music (1852–1894) (Banowetz) – Souvenir de Dresde / Akrostichon No. 1 8.570942

First, let’s get our Rubinsteins straight. This Rubinstein is neither Arthur, the famous 20th-century pianist, nor Nikolai, the pianist, composer, founder of the Moscow Conservatory, and both friend and critic of Tchaikovsky. This Rubinstein is Anton (1829–94), brother of Nikolai, founder of the corresponding St. Petersburg Conservatory, composer, conductor, and rival to Liszt as a virtuoso pianist.

Few musicians of the day were as widely traveled, as fluent in as many languages, and so busily engaged in so many simultaneous activities and endeavors as Rubinstein. He was conversant in Russian, Yiddish, German, French, and English and had a reading knowledge of Italian and Spanish. He spent time in Berlin, where he encountered Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer; sought out Liszt in Vienna; concertized throughout Europe; and accepted an offer from Steinway & Sons for an all-expenses-paid 200-concert tour of the U.S. in 1872–73 for which he received what was at the time an unprecedented $200 per appearance. Yet Rubinstein still found the time and energy to establish the music conservatory in St. Petersburg and to compose a very considerable volume of music, including 20 operas (!), five piano concertos, and six symphonies.

You would think that a man of such accomplishments would look upon his life and deeds with a sense of pride and fulfillment. But that nasty piece of work Mily Balakirev made trouble for Rubinstein—as well as for Tchaikovsky, Taneyev, and others—when he accused him of lacking nationalist spirit and “Russianness,” the equivalent of calling someone unpatriotic. Rubinstein’s dismay was reflected in his personal journal when he wrote, “Russians call me German, Germans call me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, Christians a Jew. Pianists call me a composer, composers call me a pianist. The classicists think me a futurist, and the futurists call me a reactionary. My conclusion is that I am neither fish nor fowl—a pitiful individual.” We should all be as pitiful as a man of Rubinstein’s stature and achievements.

While large chunks of Rubinstein’s output have been recorded, all of the works on the first headnoted disc and all but one on the second are world premiere recordings. For these additions to the catalog we have Joseph Banowetz to thank, the artist whose recording of piano works by Paul Kletzki I reviewed in Fanfare 34:1.

Clocking in at nearly 50 minutes on the first of the two headlined discs, Rubinstein’s 1871 Theme and Variations in G Major, op. 88, must surely be up there with some of the longest works in the form ever written. If the intention was to demonstrate the theoretical inexhaustibility of a rather nondescript, unmemorable tune, one would have to say Rubinstein succeeded. Yet after listening twice to the work all the way through, I found it a somewhat trying experience. Each variation, like an exercise or etude, explores various aspects of keyboard technique, not unlike Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, and in that respect the work is quite impressive. But it seems lacking to me in the coherence, connective tissue, and cumulative force of a work like Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel of 10 years earlier, or even of Rachmaninoff’s decades-later Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, works which, by the way, are only about half as long as Rubinstein’s. It takes a Bach or a Beethoven to sustain a variations-based work to such length, and Rubinstein was neither.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my reaction, for booklet note author Joshua Cheek observes, “In contrast to the G-Major Theme and Variations, the late Akrostichon No. 2, op. 114 (1890), provides a welcome respite.” The work is composed of five salon-like pièces caractéristiques numbers, each of which is titled with a letter of its dedicatee’s name—S, O, F, I, A—for Sophie Poznanska, one of Rubinstein’s pupils. Slightly sentimental though the pieces may be, the writing tests the technique of the player with considerable pianistic pyrotechnics. I gather that it’s the letters acrostic that accounts for the work’s overall title, Akrostichon. As noted above, Naxos claims the G-Major Variations and Akrostichon No. 2 as world premiere recordings.

New to the recorded catalog on the second headlined disc are the Sérénade russe in B Minor, the Romance and Impromptu, op. 26, Akrostichon No. 1, and five of the six numbers that make up Souvenir de Dresde. Only the fifth piece in that set, the Polonaise, is not asterisked as a world premiere. Laura Shveykovskaya, an early love interest of Rubinstein, serves as the acrostic—L, A, U, R, A—for Akrostichon No. 1. These are not pieces, however, like Schumann’s Abegg Variations or Carnaval, where actual musical notes correspond to letters of the alphabet that carry a coded message for those in the know.

Joseph Banowetz is to be commended for championing Rubinstein’s keyboard music. None of these works sound easy to play; they require a solid and hefty technique, which Banowetz possesses in full measure. He is, in fact, as Peter J. Rabinowitz put it in a 21:6 review, “a powerful pianist who might well make a strong candidate for the Wagner paraphrases when Naxos gets around to them.” As afar as I know, the company hasn’t yet, but if and when they do, Banowetz would surely be a strong candidate for the job.

If I could recommend only one of these discs, it would have to be the second one, but only because of the diversity of works, which I think provide a better overall picture of Rubinstein’s talents and afford greater musical enjoyment. Playing and recorded sound on both CDs are exemplary.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, January 2011

RUBINSTEIN, A.: Piano Music (1852–1894) (Banowetz) - Souvenir de Dresde / Akrostichon No. 1 8.570942
RUBINSTEIN, A.: Piano Music (1871–1890) (Banowetz) - Theme and Variations / Akrostichon No. 2 8.570941

There are a number of first recorded performances in these two discs. Critics are always wary of repeating the ‘premiere recording’ pronouncements made by record companies, lest they receive angry communications from disgruntled readers who have hoarded some obscure item for decades. The kind of thing I do, in fact. But on this occasion I shall merely state that everything on the 1852–1894 disc is claimed to be a première recording except the Op.3 Melodies (one is Rubinstein’s Greatest Hit) and one of the Souvenir de Dresde set has been recorded before, the sixth piece, the Polonaise. Both works on the companion disc are also apparently making their first ever appearance on disc. Note the ‘apparently’; old habits die hard.

Joseph Banowetz has made something of a study of the executant-composer Anton Rubinstein’s works. There’s a sheaf of things on Marco Polo. So he’s ideally placed to take on these solo works and present them knowledgeably and with discriminating musicianship. The Sérénade russe is a pleasing if rather generic morceaux, and acts as an entrée for the Melody in F major, the aforementioned Hit. The Op.118 Souvenir de Dresde was written in the last year of Rubinstein’s life. Each of the six pieces has features of interest. The first has florid virtuosity, a Lisztian panache, whilst the second is an Appassionata with stormy, if repetitious quasi-Brahmsian heat. The third, by contrast, a Novelette, doesn’t try too hard and is doubly attractive as a result. It evokes the baroque and harpsichord sonorities with wit but could have done with being truncated. Rubinstein’s besetting fault is repetition. At one point I thought the Nocturne—the fifth of the set—was going to break out into Chopinesque contrary motion octaves. The Polonaise, the one that has been recorded, is again attractive but at six and a half minutes, too long for its material.

The Romance and Impromptu are neatly contrasted—warm salon lyricism and then playful energy. Then we have Akrostichon No.1 which, in English, spells out the name of ‘Laura’, a crush of Rubinstein’s back in c.1856. This quintet of charming little intimate sketches is dance saturated and Mendelssohnian-light.

The second disc focuses on the big Theme and Variations of 1871, three-quarters of an hour in length in this performance, made up of a theme and twelve variations, the last of which is a big ten minute Allegro moderato. Starting with gaunt left hand octaves the theme itself soon opens out into Rubinsteinian grandiloquence, romantic, stentorian, richly chorded. The variations that follow are varied and various. Some manage to sing in the right hand over constantly, unrelentingly arpeggiated chords [No.1] whilst others propound rolled chords and march themes, as does No.3. We dip into the minor for the fifth variation before perking up half way through, and also hear Rubinstein evoke Schumann in the rather lovely seventh variation. This however, it seems to me, would work rather better as a miniature in its own right. Being embedded into the superstructure of what is, in essence, in any case, a Schumannesque work unbalances it. So too, really, does the ensuing variation which sounds like an organ transcription, heroically grand and suitably over-long. By now Rubinstein’s material is losing focus and as if to reinforce the point the final variation is simply too grandiloquent and massive—with the inevitable fugato included—to reconcile the heterogeneous material that has preceded it. It’s something of a heroic failure.

The coupling is the second set of Akrostichon, written in 1871. These playful salon effusions are full of dance patterns—note the increasingly virtuosic Mazurka—and also have folkloric inflexions too.

Banowetz has been well served by the engineering at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, a venue used quite often by Naxos. The notes are excellent. The first reviewed disc has greater variety but the second is the more ambitious. And of course there is that ‘premiere recording’ status to tempt you.

James Harrington
American Record Guide, September 2010

The Theme and Variations (1871) is a huge work—more than 47 minutes—that could be seen as Rubinstein’s attempt to create something akin to Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. It is listed as a world premiere recording, and one cannot fault the heroic piano efforts of Banowetz...Even though it was highly regarded by Liszt, Bülow, and Busoni, this epic work has never come close to entering the standard repertoire...we are fortunate to have a dedicated, world-class pianist willing to put in the work to allow us to hear it at its best and judge for ourselves...As with all of the Naxos recordings I’ve been fortunate to review recently, the recorded sound is excellent and booklet notes quite informative.

The Akrostichon No. 2 is from 1890, and as its name implies, the single letter titles to each piece in the collection spell out S-O-F-I-A (in Cyrillic though) a pupil of Rubinstein’s at the time. These are five pleasant pieces about five minutes long each, tuneful, with no pretense of being more than they are. Again Banowetz’s playing is exemplary. This is his tenth volume of Rubinstein, so one may logically assume that he understands this composer’s piano music.

James Manheim, June 2010

American pianist Joseph Banowetz…captures the combination of virtuosity with a certain formality in Rubinstein’s music, and he delivers evocative readings of the Akrostichon No. 2, Op. 114, which despite its vaguely occult name consists merely of a set of character pieces…the sound, from Marin County’s Skywalker Studios, is a strong point…

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2010

Naxos and Marco Polo have done much to champion the compositions of Anton Rubinstein at a time when he has become a lost musical voice. Yet in his day he was the most influential figure in Russian music. Born in 1829, of German-Polish parents, he was already established as a virtuoso pianist in Russia when he made his Paris debut at the age of twelve, and was to make an equally remarkable first appearance in London the following year. Considered a rival to Liszt, who was eighteen years his senior, he then spent time as a composition student, before embarking on a large catalogue of works. Together with his brother, Nikolay, he co-founded the Moscow Conservatory, not only teaching there, but also spending much time administrating the building. His own brilliant technique as a pianist is reflected in the epic Theme and Variations, a score that takes nothing much short of fifty minuets. Its inspiration came from Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes and in mood and texture is Germanic. Indeed the weight of the eighth variation bears the hallmark of the Brahms First Piano Concerto written a decade earlier, while in the following variation we find Chopin. The Twelfth and last is a major score in itself, and contains a complex fugue whose roots are in Bach’s organ works, the pianist at times seemingly required to possess three hands. We are indebted to Joseph Banowetz, who has recorded the complete piano concertos, for taking us through the work with such outgoing brilliance and clarity. By contrast the second Akrostichon is a group of five light music pieces, all of charm and taking their mood from Mendelssohn. The sound quality is exemplary.

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