RUBINSTEIN: Violin Concerto / CUI: Suite Concertante (Hiroshi Isaka/ Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra/ Kenneth Schermerhorn/ Leos Komarek/ Michael Halasz/ Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/ Takako Nishizaki) (Naxos: 8.555244)
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Anton Rubinstein (1829 - 1894)
Violin Concerto in G major, Op. 46
Anton Rubinstein achieved the height of fame as a pianist, a rival and successor to Liszt. His abilities as a composer, however, attracted less favourable notice in some quarters. In particular he was referred to by Liszt in relatively ungenerous terms and he met an even cooler reception from an increasingly important group of contemporaries in his native Russia, where his castigation of the Russian nationalist composers grouped around Balakirev as amateurs aroused the animosity of the most influential writer of the movement, Vladimir Stasov. By education and inclination Rubinstein was a conservative composer of the more traditional German school. It was, therefore, understandable that his attitude to nationalist compositions should initially have been cold, and that the music of Liszt and, still more, of Wagner should have proved unacceptable to him.
Anton Rubinstein was born in a district of Russia near the frontier of modern Romania, the son of German-Jewish parents, who, like Mendelssohn's father and mother, had chosen to become Christians, a choice that both Mendelssohn and Rubinstein stressed in a number of sacred works. After early piano lessons with his mother, Rubinstein became a pupil of Alexander Villoing in Moscow, where the family had settled, and by the age of nine was ready to make his first public appearance, followed, during the next three years, by a series of concert tours taking him to Paris, the Netherlands, England, Scandinavia and Germany. In 1844 the Rubinstein moved to Berlin, where they remained until the death of Anton Rubinstein's father in 1846. The period in Prussia allowed study with Siegfried Dehn, Glinka's former teacher, and acquaintance with Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer.
For two years after his father's death Anton Rubinstein lived in Vienna, alleviating his poverty by giving piano lessons, and much in need of the kind of practical assistance that Liszt might have given him, had he been so inclined. Unusually, the latter had refused to accept Rubinstein as a pupil when he heard him play in 1846, perhaps sensing in him a possible rival. It was through the help of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlova, a German-born princess married to the brother of the Tsar, that Rubinstein achieved his first outstanding success as an adult, at first as her prot ge, in St Petersburg. By 1854 he had resumed his career as a virtuoso, and at the end of the decade he established, under her patronage, the Russian Musical Society, followed, in 1862, by the St Petersburg Conservatory, of which he was the first director. He relinquished office in 1867, and resumed it briefly between 1887 and 1890. He died in 1894.
Anton Rubinstein devoted much of his energy to concert performance as one of the greatest pianists of his day, but also found time for conducting and for composition. As a pianist his repertoire was enormous, his style and appearance giving rise to the improbable rumour that he was the illegitimate son of Beethoven. His work in St Petersburg involved him in conducting concerts for the Russian Musical Society that might serve as a model of German taste, as opposed to the wilder attempts of Balakirev's rival Free Music School and its endeavours towards musical nationalism. His brother Nikolay Rubinstein, a player of comparable ability, was similarly involved in the Russian Musical Society and the Conservatory in Moscow.
The Violin Concerto in G major, Opus 46, written in 1857, when Rubinstein was 28, at a time when the establishment of a professional Conservatory in Russia was under discussion, is unjustly neglected. There is nothing particularly Russian about the work, which shows the fine craftsmanship of a Mendelssohn and an undoubtedly professional technical command of structure and orchestration. The three movements of the concerto provide an admirable opportunity for virtuoso performance. The first of these opens with an orchestral introduction based on the main theme of the movement, before the dramatic entry of the soloist, who later takes up the principal theme, followed by passage-work and more lyrical material, developed with the orchestra, with brief cadenzas and final excitement. The slow movement opens with a hymn-like orchestral theme and trumpet solo before the entry of the soloist in a high register, going on to tenderly lyrical comment on the material, before moving on to music of greater intensity. The serenity of the close of the movement is broken at once by what follows, a lively finale, with contrasting thematic material that nevertheless brings moments of relaxation and final drama.
Cesar Cui (1835 - 1918)
Suite Concertante, Op.25
The Mighty Handful, the five Russian nationalist composers led by Balakirev, were, in some senses, truly amateurs. Mussorgsky managed to retain a position in the civil service for most of his adult life, in spite of his intemperate habits; Borodin was a distinguished chemist; Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer, and Cesar Cui an expert on military fortifications. Nevertheless, in spite of certain technical deficiencies, each in his own different way was able to add to the development of a peculiarly Russian kind of music, following the example of the pioneer Glinka.
Cui was the son of a French army officer, who chose to remain in Russia after the defeat of Napoleon and the retreat from Moscow. His mother was Lithuanian, and Cui was brought up in the town of his birth, Vilnius, where his father, like that other emigre Nicolas Chopin in Warsaw, taught French. Cui's professional studies in military engineering took place in St Petersburg, where he was able to further his musical interests.
Cui was to continue his career as a professor of military fortification, while devoting much of his time to the ideals of Balakirev, whom he had met in 1856. He became influential particularly as a critic and as a proponent of Russian ideals in music, regarding the allegedly European tendencies of the more cosmopolitan Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky with some disfavour.
As a composer Cui won Balakirev's early approval, particularly for his supposed achievement in opera. In addition to his stage works, Cui wrote songs and piano pieces in some profusion, larger scale choral works and a baker's dozen of orchestral pieces. Perhaps wisely, he avoided the sustained intricacies of the symphony, but excelled in shorter forms, for which he is chiefly remembered. Undervalued by posterity, he acquired a certain mastery of a succinctness, coupled with an ability in orchestration that he did not always show in his early work.
Cui's Suite Concertante was written in 1884 and later published by Belyayev. The work exists also in aversion for violin and piano. The initial lntermezzo scherzando opens with a brief introduction before the entry of the solo violin in Russian mood, the dance theme later shared with the orchestra. The movement relaxes in a trio section of more lyrical feeling, to be replaced by the return of the vigorous rhythm of the opening, turning momentarily to a gentle waltz in its closing section. The second movement, a Canzonetta, starts with a graceful violin melody, material that frames a central section of contrasting energy. For the third Cui again borrows a title from vocal music. The Cavatina, introduced by the woodwind, allows the violin a romantic melody, a transposition of the contemporary operatic into instrumental terms. The suite ends with a Tarantella, a Neapolitan dance that acquired instrumental popularity in the nineteenth century, its origin in a supposed perpetu