RUBINSTEIN: Symphony No. 2, 'Ocean' (Leos Komarek/ Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/ Stephen Gunzenhauser) (Naxos: 8.555392)
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Russian music and music in Russia owe a great debt to Anton Rubinstein. Nevertheless he found himself, in his life-time, in opposition to the polymath Stasov's Mighty Handful, led by Balakirev, while a younger generation of composers, as Stravinsky tell us, would use his name as characteristic of all that was meretricious. \C'est Rubinstein" was the ultimate condemnation of a new composition that failed to please. Subsequent musical opinion has tended to continue the denigration of Rubinstein, condemned for his facility and, indeed, for the very technical proficiency of his composition and the obvious virtuosity of his performances as a pianist. Liszt, perhaps fearing a rival near the throne, spoke of him as the "pseudomusician of the Future"; César Cui wrote of him as not a Russian composer but "merely a Russian who composes, his music allied rather to that of Germany". Jibes of this kind have continued. Sacheverell Sitwell, in his biography of Liszt, describes Rubinstein as "a fountain of bad music", while a scholar of the eminence of Gerald Abraham can refer to him as "a highly competent imitator of Mendelssohn or Schumann".
There is no doubt that a great deal of the prejudice against Rubinstein was excited by anti-semitism. Jewish emancipation brought a measure of freedom, political rights and greater opportunities, but suspicion, jealousy and hostility remained. Rubinstein, moreover, like Mendelssohn, was something of a cosmopolitan, in his own words "considered a Russian in Germany and a German in Russia"
Anton Rubinstein was born in the Podolsk district of Russia in 1829. He had piano lessons from his mother, before studying with Alexandre Villoing in Moscow. He gave his first public concert at the age of nine, thereafter touring Europe. In Paris he met Liszt and Chopin, in the Netherlands members of the Russian Imperial family and in England Queen Victoria. In 1844 his family settled in Berlin, where, for two years, Rubinstein was able to take lessons from Glinka's teacher, Siegfried Dehn. In 1846 his father died and his family, including his younger brother Nikolay, returned to Russia, while he moved to Vienna, supporting himself as best he could. In later years he was to be critical of the failure of Liszt to give him any practical help. In 1846 he had played to Liszt, who was well known for the encouragement that he gave to young musicians. Possibly Liszt sensed competition from Rubinstein. "A talented man must win the goal of his ambition by his own unassisted efforts" was his comment. Two months later he visited Rubinstein, in his attic in Vienna, "accompanied by his usual retinue, his so-called courtiers, who followed him wherever he went". The visit had no practical result, and Rubinstein was obliged to continue "by his own unassisted efforts".
Rubinstein spent the winter of 1848/1849 in Russia. A meeting with the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, sister-in-law of the Tsar, and formerly Princess of Saxe-Altenburg, led to her continued patronage. Rubinstein was given an apartment in one of her palaces, and became, in his own words, her "musical stoker". The relationship proved an important one. With her support plans were drawn up for changes in Russian musical education, resulting in the foundation, in 1859, of the Russian Musical Society, which promoted concerts, conducted by Rubinstein, and in 1862 the St Petersburg Conservatory was established, with Rubinstein as its first director and Tchaikovsky among its first pupils. In 1867 he resigned from both positions, although he was to return as director of the Conservatory twenty years later, after a career in which he established himself as one of the greatest pianists of the time, as a composer of international reputation, and as a conductor. By the time of his jubilee, in 1889, he enjoyed the greatest fame. In spite of this, the Russian Symphonic Evening in his memory, two weeks after his death in late 1894, failed to attract an audience. "So much for the public's famed love of Rubinstein", remarked Rimsky-Korsakov's memorialist, Yestrebstev.
As a composer Anton Rubinstein was prolific. When someone asked his brother Nikolay, founder of the Moscow Conservatory, about his own work as a composer, he denied any ambition of this kind, since his brother had composed enough for three. His works include a score of operas, five piano concertos, half a dozen symphonies, chamber music, songs, piano pieces, and choral works.
The Second Symphony, the so-called Ocean Symphony, grew and grew, acquiring further movements with each revision. The first version was completed in 1851, a year after the First Symphony, and consisted of four movements. The second version of the Ocean Symphony, with six movements, was completed in 1863, and the final version, with seven movements, in 1880, the year of Rubinstein's Fifth Symphony.
The seven movements of the final version of the Second Symphony represent the Seven Seas. The opening movement offers an evocative picture of the sea, beautifully crafted, and it must be admitted, with much of the clarity of form and texture that Mendelssohn would have approved. Its triumphant conclusion gives way to a more contemplative mood of almost sinister contrast. The waters subside to allow a third movement of a more cheerful cast, into which storms can still intrude, any turbulence calmed by the serene oboe theme and the rhapsodic melody of the strings. Nevertheless the potential danger of the sea remains, even in the final bars of the movement. The fourth movement is a breezy Allegro, with an undercurrent of Russian melodic invention worthy of Rubinstein's pupil Tchaikovsky. There is something almost operatic about the dramatic Andante that follows, both in melodic outline and in the reminiscences of earlier material. The sixth movement of the symphony is a Scherzo, in which Tchaikovsky detected a cheerful sailor's dance, which gives way to a gentle Trio. The last of the seven movements brings the traveller of the Seven Seas home again, danger now past and storms forgotten.