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Hyperion Records

CDA67660 - Rubinstein: Cello Sonatas
Dushenka in Flight (1808) by Fedor Petrovich Tolstoy (1783-1873)
Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67660

Recording details: January 2008
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: April 2009
Total duration: 70 minutes 33 seconds

'These two lavishly inventive and free-flowing cello sonatas reveal how sorely underestimated Rubinstein's legacy has been. They are more than equivalent to the cello sonatas of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Rachmaninov … in Jiří Bárta's hands it speaks to us across the centuries with a radiant ardour' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Two cello sonatas [Rubinstein's] are undeniably beautiful and are played with much expertise by these fine players' (American Record Guide)

'Bárta and Milne produce glorious readings of both works, each seeming to relish the sonorities he is producing, Bárta spinning effortless arches of sound and Milne managing to combine warmth and detail. The Hyperion recording is sensitive and truthful … warmly recommended' (International Record Review)

'Performances of rare precision, fluency, and Romantic warmth' (Fanfare, USA)

Cello Sonatas
Allegro moderato  [11'55]
Moderato assai  [6'56]
Moderato  [9'50]
Allegro  [12'41]
Allegretto  [7'49]
Andante  [9'16]
Moderato  [12'06]

Remembered today principally as one of the greatest of all nineteenth-century piano virtuosos, Rubinstein was also a celebrated composer in his day who produced a large number of works with an enviable ease and fluency. His two Cello Sonatas are recorded here by Czech cellist Jirí Bárta and Romantic specialist Hamish Milne on a thoroughly enjoyable new disc.

Rubinstein was only in his early twenties when he composed the Cello Sonata No 1 in D major Op 18 in 1852, but it is a fairly substantial work which not unnaturally requires a pianist of heroic stature as well as a first-rate cellist. If Rubinstein’s idiom is more reminiscent of Mendelssohn than Russian folk-melody, he still contrives to sound a personal note with touches of Slavic ardour. The Cello Sonata No 2 in G major Op 39 was composed in 1857, though Rubinstein revised it some years later. This is a larger, more ambitious conception than the D major sonata, with a true scherzo and slow movement as well as sonata-form first movement and finale. In fact, though the sonata-form outlines of the first movement are clear, the movement has fantasia-like aspects, developing episodes that concentrate on one motif or another, and with cadenza-like effusions for the two instruments at different times. The cello’s opening theme is generously long-spanned, almost Brahmsian.

The repertoire of nineteenth-century cello music is rich, but not so extensive that these two sonatas by Rubinstein should continue to be so neglected. They are both delightful works, and the second sonata especially deserves a regular place in recital programmes.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Best-known in his lifetime as one of the great piano virtuosos of the nineteenth century, but also a composer, conductor, teacher and administrator, Anton Rubinstein was born in the village of Vikhvatnets, in Bessarabia, to a Jewish family of German-Polish origin. His father was a prosperous merchant, and the family were baptized as Christians when Anton was two years old. Three years later they moved to Moscow. A Wunderkind as a pianist—as was his younger brother Nikolai—he began playing in public at the age of nine. His reputation grew so swiftly that his Paris debut in 1841 was attended by Liszt, Chopin, Kalkbrenner and Meyerbeer, and subsequently he became a piano pupil of Liszt. From 1844, encouraged by Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, he studied composition in Berlin under Siegfried Dehn (who had also taught Glinka), and returned to Russia in 1848 as chamber virtuoso to the Grand Duchess Helena Pavlovna, sister-in-law of the Tsar. In the 1850s Rubinstein travelled widely in Western Europe and was well known to the Schumanns and Brahms as well as to the Liszt circle. In 1858 he was appointed Imperial Concert Director in St Petersburg, with a lifetime pension. As such, in 1862 he founded the St Petersburg Conservatory and until 1867 was its first Director. Thereafter, apart from a punishing schedule of composition, he returned to the career of itinerant international virtuoso. As a pianist Rubinstein had an enormous repertoire and immense stamina—for example, during a nine-month tour in the USA with the violinist Wieniawski in 1872–3 he gave 215 recitals spanning all the major American cities. He returned to Russia and taught again at the Conservatory in the late 1880s, but in 1891 moved to Dresden. His health was failing, however, and he spent his last year on his estate near St Petersburg, on the shores of the Baltic, where he died in November 1894 a few days short of his sixty-fifth birthday.

Rubinstein’s training in composition had been in the Germanic tradition, and he was always associated with the more ‘Western-leaning’ wing of nineteenth-century Russian music. He was also tremendously prolific, writing operas, oratorios, symphonies and concertos, plus a great deal of chamber and piano music and many songs. Although he was viewed as an important composer in his lifetime, for many years his only work to achieve lasting posthumous fame was the comparatively minor Melody in F, and only a fraction of his output of nearly 200 works is known today. He is often viewed as a musician who was betrayed by his very facility: composition came easily to him, and Brahms, who liked and respected Rubinstein as a man and as a performer, complained that he never took enough trouble over his works. Nevertheless such pieces as the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Second (‘Ocean’) Symphony, the collection of 24 ‘musical portraits’ for piano entitled Kamenniy-Ostrov and the opera The Demon show that Rubinstein was capable of making the requisite creative effort, and these works have clung to the fringes of the repertoire. They testify to a highly accomplished composer who was equally at home in the salon and the concert hall, and whose creative devotion to his native country, even if not especially indebted to Russian folk music, was profound.

The same can certainly be said of his two impressive sonatas for cello and piano. Both belong to his first period of European wandering in the 1850s. Rubinstein was only in his early twenties when he composed the Cello Sonata No 1 in D major Op 18 in 1852, but it is a fairly substantial work which not unnaturally requires a pianist of heroic stature as well as a first-rate cellist. If Rubinstein’s idiom is more reminiscent of Mendelssohn than Russian folk-melody, he still contrives to sound a personal note with touches of Slavic ardour.

The Cello Sonata No 2 in G major Op 39 was composed in 1857, though Rubinstein revised it some years later. This is a larger, more ambitious conception than the D major sonata, with a true scherzo and slow movement as well as sonata-form first movement and finale.

The repertoire of nineteenth-century cello music is rich, but not so extensive that these two sonatas by Rubinstein should continue to be so neglected. They are both thoroughly enjoyable works, and the second sonata especially deserves a regular place in recital programmes.

Calum MacDonald © 2009

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