Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Forgotten Russian: The Music of Anton Rubinstein

The Forgotten Russian: The Music of Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894)

“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” (Anton Rubinstein)

History is like a great wave crashing down on the sandcastle of art: for a moment, everything is obscured, but once it begins to recede, a few details of the castle remain—a tower, perhaps, standing tall against the ruins of time.  Our moment of time is like the wave; we can’t really tell what will survive and what will perish.  Only with the passing of time can we recognize art that continues to speak to us, with a voice that even hundreds of years later we can understand.  However, this metaphor leaves one important detail out: the castle can be rebuilt.  With art, the reconstruction is simple; discovering the work of one ‘survivor’ often leads to curiosity about his/her contemporaries, whose works may have been washed away into the ocean of time.  Yet most of these works remain, buried quite shallowly in the sand.  A simple plastic shovel (and in our time, the wonders of the internet) is all that is required to earth the treasure trove of riches lying scattered at our feet.  And what riches!  The ocean, it seems, is quite fickle and can’t really distinguish between good or bad, timeless or worthless art.  Quite often, a great work—say, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos, or Aphra Benh’s Oroonoko—are uncovered after hundreds of years of neglect.  At other times, we merely find a completely enjoyable work of art that will probably disappear with the next wave.  Such a discovery is the work of Anton Rubinstein, a once celebrated composer/pianist whose memory lives on solely through his association with a much more lasting composer, Tchaikovsky. 

Anton Rubinstein and his brother, Nikolai, were the titans of the musical establishment in mid-19th century Russia.  They single-handedly opened the first musical school in Russia, the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and Anton introduced Russia to many of the European classics, including concerts showcasing all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.  One of their greatest products was perhaps the greatest Russian composer of all, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who was Anton’s pupil and Nikolai’s close friend.  Ironically, both men slighted Tchaikovsky’s talent in ways that proved more lasting than their abilities (to posterity, at any rate): Nikolai insulted Tchaikovsky’s newly composed Piano Concerto, calling it among other things “trash,” and refused to play it (he ultimately did, with some chagrin, when it became world famous); and Anton berated Tchaikovsky for introducing wild orchestral effects in his student composition, The Storm, an overture that is surprisingly a bit Rubinsteniesque.  For this reason, we think of the Rubinstein brothers as fuddy-duddies, unable to appreciate the new generation of Russian composers, all the more so given their intense rivalry with the St. Petersburg group of composers, the Nationalists (Balakirev, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, etc.) who detested the “Germanic” leanings of the Rubinsteins.  This school did all they could to demolish the fame of Rubinstein, which in the 19th century was truly formidable; after his death, his music quickly faded from view, swallowed up by the spectacle of war and Modernism.  A stray piece of Rubinstein’s emerged from the wreckage: his famous piano piece, Melodie, his extraordinarily tuneful Piano Concerto No.4, and perhaps some dances from one of his operas. But no one—outside of Russia, perhaps—really took him seriously.  A musical footnote at best.

Was posterity so misguided?  Did Anton Rubinstein have something vital, or at least enjoyable, to offer the world?  Even a brief survey of his music questions his hasty removal from the canon.  His music occupies a unique place between the early Romantics (Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt) and the later generation of Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky and Glazunov.  Yet perhaps what his music does most effectively is create the prototypical ‘Russian’ style that the St. Petersburg composers claimed as their right.  Rubinstein cleverly combined the classical forms of symphony, sonata, concerto as inherited by Beethoven with the Romantic sense of fantasy, whimsy, and sprawl.  He was also one of the first—if not the first—Russian composer to write the piquant, dashing scherzos for which Russians have become justly famous.  Listen to the scherzo movements of his First Symphony (arguably the first Russian symphony by anyone of note—Glinka tried, but failed, to write one himself), his Third, or his Sixth.  Sonically, Rubinstein is closest to Berlioz, Schumann, and Liszt, though Schumann is the composer who comes to mind most often in his orchestral works.  Perhaps his greatest ‘sin’ is lacking the Russian accent we find in Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and Tchaikovsky, as well as his avoidance of folk material.  Yet does one have to speak with an accent to be Russian?  To me, a Russian composer is more an aesthetic than a formula, and in Rubinstein’s works we find that very aesthetic: romantic, brooding, passionate, and spilling over with dark-hued, Slavic melodies.  If you ever wondered how Tchaikovsky became Tchaikovsky, Rubinstein is the answer.  Even his Piano Concerto No.1 is cut from the same cloth as Rubinstein’s massive, propulsive, yet ever-Romantic concertos.  Tchaikovsky’s own First Symphony, fresh and unique as it is, basks in the sun of Rubinstein’s accomplishment. 

However, to praise a composer by his connection to a greater composer is not always a compliment.  What makes his music deserving of a revival are the works themselves, though there are perhaps too many to adequately cover in such a brief post.  He was enormously prolific, perhaps too prolific, which also accounts for his neglect: we are naturally wary of a “machine” composer, who spins out works by the yard (think today of Philip Glass).  While I can’t pretend to know all his music, I have listened to a great deal and have unearthed a few gems, works that deserve more than an occasional listen.  Remarkably, Rubinstein was able to compose successfully in numerous forms, writing little masterpieces in each one.  Below are a few works which offer the best introduction to his style and achievement:

Rubinstein wrote 6 symphonies, each of which has considerable merits, and repay repeated exposure.  However, the best one to start with is his Second Symphony, subtitled the “Ocean” Symphony (rev. 1880).  Originally a traditional work in 4 movements, Rubinstein began to see Lisztian properties in the music, and expanded it to 6, then 7 movements.  Presumably, this was the echo the fabled “Seven Seas,” though the movements bear little resemblance to specific parts of the world.  Rather, it is an extremely tuneful, bracing symphony that at times seems like an extended symphonic poem.  Indeed, the work is most clearly calls to mind is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Schehrezade, which echoes the four movements of a symphony but is closer to the world of the tone poem.  The first movement is a warm, expansive piece whose opening theme seems a call to adventure.  This is followed by a second movement “storm” scene, which is the last piece he added to the score—very effective and somewhat reminiscent to the storm music of Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest.  A tranquil, “moonlight” movement follows, which leads into a dance-like movement (echoing some of the infectious dance music from his operas); the fifth movement is the true slow movement, a haunting, dark-hued Adagio of great seriousness (particularly after the jaunty fourth movement); a traditional Russian scherzo makes an appearance in movement six, leading the way into the triumphant finale, much in the spirit of the first movement.  True, it’s a long piece, though it’s far superior to the 4 movement version, which seems a bit too slight. 

The First Symphony  is a delight, in the traditional four movements, and very much like Schumann’s First and Second symphonies (check out my Amazon review of that work for more detail:  The Third and Fourth Symphonies are studies in contrast, since the Third is a charming, somewhat rustic piece (a great  scherzo movement), while the Fourth, subtitled “Tragic,’ is a Beethovian exercise that pushes Rubinstein to extremes in expression and length.  It might not be his best or most memorable work, but it’s enjoyable from beginning to end, and has some nice effects throughout.  Sadly, I don’t know the Fifth Symphony yet, but one of my all time favorites in the Sixth Symphon, the product of a 60-year old composer reaching the end of his career.  The music, however, sounds anything but old: it opens with a dramatic, stamping rhythm over which a tragic theme sounds.  It’s powerfully yet economically scored, and none of the movements outstays its welcome.  The scherzo is a particular treat, perhaps his most “Russian” scherzo of all—similar to the work of Glazunov and even the young Tchaikovsky.  A beautiful slow movement and a dashing finale finishes the work off, in what might be his most inspired piece of orchestral music beside the “Ocean” symphony. 

Rubinstein also wrote a good deal of concert music aside from symphonies, including some very Romantic tone poems/overtures, such as Ivan the Terrible, Don Quixote, Dimitri Donskoy, and Eroica Fantasia.  Of these, the tone poem, Don Quixote is the most exciting, as it is a Lisztian masterpiece, full of colorful, episodic events from the knight’s career.  While it might not compare with Strauss’ famous work, it’s still a clever work in its own right, though emphasizing more the serious/tragic nature of the knight rather than his hijinks and high spirits.  The dances from his various operas are also quite catchy, particularly those from Feramors and The Demon.  These are all available on an attractive Marco Polo disc and show the lighter side of Rubinstein’s output, with some rare ‘Oriental’ colors that would make The Five proud (the nationalist composers of St. Petersburg).  

Rubinstein wrote a lot of concerted works, including two cello concertos (haven’t heard these yet), a tuneful, almost Classical violin concerto, and 5 Piano Concertos (including some other piano and orchestra works).  The first two piano concertos combine Beethoven and Mendelssohn in an attractive mix, yet offer something unique as well: as one of the greatest 19th century pianists (Rachmaninov was in raptures over his technique), his piano music seems a bit more personal and commanding than his orchestral scores.  The Third Piano Concerto is a favorite, with a dashing, almost galloping theme pounded out by the piano, followed by a brooding, Slavic slow movement (almost like a Russian Chopin), and a fiery finale.  However, his greatest masterpiece is the Fourth Piano Concerto, which is occasionally still played today.  It opens with a mysterious, minor-key theme in winds, which is quickly taken up by the full orchestra and crashing piano chords.  This is Rubinstein as Liszt (think Totendanz) and it’s tremendously effective.  A ruminative slow movement follows, exposing the soul of the concerto, before the demonic finale, which does Liszt one better in its pianistic pyrotechnics.  Highly recommended! 

Rubinstein was enormously prolific in this field, composing dozens of work which are more suited to a book than a slapdash article like this.  However, some of his most beautiful piano music (of the music I’ve explored) comes from a handful of discs played by Joseph Banowetz, who also performs the complete concertos for the Marco Polo label.  These discs include the touching, and sometimes quite haunting suite Souvenir of Dresden, of which my favorite movement is the second, entitled “Appassionata.”  He also wrote some gorgeous pieces on the names of the women in his life, his Akrostikons—one on the name of Laura, etc.  Of the other music I’ve explored, his two String Quartets are gorgeous, and sound very Mendelssohnian.  The 2nd one, in particular, seems to echo Mendellsohn’s Romantic 2nd quartet. 

For more information on Rubinstein, check out this very well-written and researched Wikipedia article, as well as the links at the bottom:

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