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Colin Clarke
Fanfare, January 2011

Recently, I reviewed Joseph Banowetz’s first volume of music by Anton Rubinstein, declaring myself ripe for more at the end of it. Well, here is Volume 2, a mix of the new (five of the six movements of Souvenir de Dresde are world premiere recordings—No. 6 was recorded by Leo Sirota and is available on the Arbiter label—as are the Romance and Impromptu, the Sérénade russe, and the Akrostichon No. 1). Volume 1 contained music from 1871–90; this presents works written 1852–94. I also mentioned in my earlier review that only the Melody in F has gained the favor of the catalog, and here in fact it is, played with unaffected simplicity by Banowetz and bringing in tow its lesser-known companion, a Melody in B, a work of supreme delicacy. Rubinstein uses single-line melody to great effect, and Banowetz plays with supreme dignity and maturity.

The disc begins with a work minus opus number. The Sérénade russe was written around 1852, and was composed for a publication named L’Album Bellini. The melancholy feel of the work seems entirely Russian. Banowetz ensures that the lightenings of texture and mood register to maximum effect, and that the Lisztian arabesques contain hints of improvisation.

The sublime sweetness of the first movement of Souvenir de Dresde (1894) draws one into the work. This movement’s title is, in fact, “Simplicitus.” The music opens out into sequences of roulades (dispatched with remarkable ease by Banowetz). In contrast, the second movement, marked “Appassionata,” uses Brahmsian sonorities to bring a contrastive disquiet. Annotator Joshua Creek suggests that the opening of the third movement, “Novelette,” is pastiche Rameau, and it is easy to hear what he means. The movement is a delight. A light, almost Mendelssohnian Caprice leads to an extended Nocturne where the shadow of Chopin can be clearly felt. Drama is the characteristic of the final Polonaise. Banowitz does not quite project the full sweep of the piece, perhaps.

Dripping, slow descending lines that one might expect to encounter in late Brahms begin the Romance from op. 26. Rubinstein’s offering turns out to be a simple but expressive song without words, its melody exquisitely shaped by Banowetz. The Impromptu makes for effective contrast in its playful, busy nature. Finally, Akrostikon No. 1 (written around 1856). Each movement is headed by a letter, which when put together spell “LAURA” (Laura Shveykovskaya, a young lady evidently admired by the composer). All five movements are remarkably stress-free, liquid outpourings. Any hints of disquiet in the fifth movement (Con moto) are dismissed in the quasi-improvised final movement, a clear Lied ohne Worte.

Once again, Banowetz has succeeded in alerting the record buying public of the importance of Anton Rubsinstein’s music while simultaneously providing playing of the utmost clarity and beauty.

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, November 2010

Banowetz continues his series of the piano music of Anton Rubinstein (1852–94), an important figure in the development of Russian music and the Russian school of piano playing. Last issue I reviewed another volume in this series (Naxos 8.570941) and was impressed with Banowetz and his heroic efforts on Rubinstein’s huge Theme and Variations, which I found too long. The material here is short pieces and movements, all three to seven minutes long—and much more to my liking. A wide variety of moods and styles is found here, and again the pianistic abilities of a mature, dedicated artist like Banowetz present the music in the best light. All except the two Melodies (including the most famous one in F) and a Polonaise are listed as world premiere recordings.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, July 2010

RUBINSTEIN, A.: Piano Music (1852–1894) (Banowetz) - Souvenir de Dresde / Akrostichon No. 1 8.570942
ARENSKY, A.: Piano Music - 6 Pieces, Op. 53 / Etudes, Opp. 41 and 74 / Pres de la mer (Neiman) 8.572233

Naxos recently released two new discs of piano music by 19th century Russian Antons: Rubinstein (1829–1894) and Arensky (1861–1906), both nicely interpreted by American pianists.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2010

In June I was welcoming a stunning disc of Anton Rubinstein’s piano music, and I am delighted to find it was the first of a series from Joseph Banowetz. Considered a rival to the virtuosity of Liszt, Rubinstein became particularly influential in Russian music when he co-founded the Moscow Conservatory with his brother, Nikolay, not only teaching there, but also spending much time administrating the building. He led life at a super-human pace travelling around much of the world, and late in life settled in Dresden, a place he quickly came to love and gave rise to the Souvenir de Dresde. Extensive - here lasting over thirty-seven minutes - it was not a consistently inspired work, the second movement’s thematic material spread very thinly over a long period. Yet in the charming Caprice, and the joy of the rather quirky final Polonaise, we hear the Rubinstein of yesteryear. The disc contains the Melody in F, the work by which he became best known. It was one of the Two Melodies written as salon music that rather painted the wrong picture of a the composer’s output. He was twenty-three at the time, and came around the time of his engaging Romance and Impromptu and the Akrostichon, a work whose each movement spells out Laura, the christen name of a young sweetheart. We jump forward to 1879 for the Serenade russe, a view of Russia rather seen through German eyes. The vast majority of the sixteen tracks are receiving their first performance, and if they are not the finest of Rubinstein, when placed in the hands of Banowetz they sparkle as small jewels. The recording is exemplary.

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