Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Quartets: in F
op. 55 bis;
Leslie Howard (pn); Rita Manning (vn); Morgan Goff (va); Justin Pearson (vc)
HYPERION 68018 (76:28)
Anton Rubinstein, if not a front-rank composer, was an important figure in the history of Russian music. Born in 1829, he was older than Tchaikovsky and the composers of the Mighty Handful and was
active as a composer a couple of decades before they made their mark. He was a virtuoso pianist who rivaled Liszt, a prominent conductor, the founder and first director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and the founder of the first public concert organization in Russia. In exploring Rubinstein’s music, I have felt that he was generally at his best in works involving his own instrument, the piano. That generalization is borne out by these two piano quartets, which are the finest, most compelling music I have heard from this composer. These are ambitious, large-scale chamber works, both nearly 40 minutes in length, cogently constructed and full of melodic invention. The repetitiveness that is one of Rubinstein’s major weaknesses does occur to some extent here, but for the most part the level of inspiration remains high in all eight movements of these works. The earlier of the two quartets also exists in an alternate version as a quintet for piano and winds, which has been recorded several times. This release is claimed to be the first recording of the version for strings, as well as of the later C-Major Quartet. Both versions of the F-Major work were published in 1860, but when exactly they were composed is unknown. The C-Major was published in 1866 but had been performed earlier, in 1864.
Rubinstein was a cosmopolitan rather than nationalistic composer, staunchly opposed to efforts to create a specifically Russian musical style; but, willingly or not, he contributed to the formation of one such style. The influence of such German composers as Mendelssohn and Schumann is evident in these works as well as elsewhere in his
. That’s not a problem—we could certainly use more good chamber music by either of those composers—but in any case what we have here is influence, not slavish imitation. The opening three-chord phrases in the first movement of the F-Major Quartet could have been written by Schumann, but the predominantly lyrical thematic material that follows is more suggestive of later Russian composers of the “Moscow-eclectic” group around Tchaikovsky, such as Anton Arensky, pointing to Rubinstein as their ancestor. The scherzo of this work is also Schumannesque, but the lovely, dreamy trio section once again seems to anticipate the later cosmopolitan Russian style. Leslie Howard, in his notes for this recording, finds that in the poignant slow movement the “debt to Mendelssohn is proudly displayed,” but the references to Mendelssohn (and to Schumann as well) are suggestions rather than imitation. The first movement of the C-Major Quartet, with its gorgeous, rapturous main theme, is alternately Schumannesque and Tchaikovskian (but Tchaikovsky, it must be remembered, did not graduate from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where Rubinstein was his teacher in composition, until 1865). The high-spirited scherzo opens in a Mendelssohnian vein before briefly metamorphosing into what sounds like a Russian dance. The scherzo and trio sections are unified through an unvarying tempo and the persistence of what Leslie Howard describes as a “clock-ticking” accompaniment. The impassioned slow movement again anticipates Tchaikovsky. The abundant and skillfully manipulated melodic material of the finale includes a very Brahmsian theme and one strongly suggestive of a Russian folk song. Given Rubinstein’s attainments as a pianist, it is not surprising the piano part in these quartets is unusually elaborate and virtuosic, but the strings are not reduced to reticence and play an active role.
I have nothing with which to compare these performances, but they seem thoroughly proficient, committed, and spirited. The sound quality, too, largely lives up to Hyperion’s normal high standards. The piano tone is solid and well defined, and the instruments are precisely placed in the soundstage. Whether due to the recording or to the tonal qualities and forceful attacks of the players, there is sometimes a slight abrasiveness to the string sound.
I enthusiastically recommend this release to lovers of Romantic chamber music as well as those interested in the history of Russian music. The enterprising Hyperion label deserves praise for continuing to bring us little-known music that is worth exploring.
FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
Works on This Recording
Quintet for Piano and Winds in F major, Op. 55 by Anton Rubinstein
Justin Pearson (Cello),
Rita Manning (Violin),
Leslie Howard (Piano),
Morgan Goff (Viola)
Written: circa 1855/1860; Russia
Venue: Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk
Length: 36 Minutes 30 Secs.
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