Pianist Leslie Howard is acclaimed as ‘a virtuoso in the true Romantic style with its emphasis on musicality as much as bravura’ (The Guardian). He is joined here by three of his frequent string collaborators for two forgotten masterpieces of the Russian nineteenth-century chamber music tradition by renowned pianist-composer Anton Rubinstein.
In recent years there has been something of a revival of Rubinstein’s music, but previously it had fallen into total neglect outside Russia from around the early 1920s. However in his day Rubinstein was a hugely important figure: the first international professional Russian composer. His influence is almost incalculably vast on the succeeding generations of Russians who benefited from his grasp of Western musical forms allied to an excellence of craftsmanship and an easy melodic fluency. Although a thoroughly cosmopolitan composer, Rubinstein could also incorporate the occasional Russian folk-song or an echo of Russian church music.
The Piano Quartet in F major was dedicated to Berthold Damcke, the music critic who had championed Rubinstein during the late 1850s in the public argument fomented by the composer and critic Aleksandr Serov, whose printed taunts of Rubinstein and his non-nationalistic style seem largely to have been fuelled by anti-Semitism. The Piano Quartet in C major was one of Rubinstein’s most popular works in its day.
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Although his birthplace (Vykhvatinets, Volhynia, Podolia province) is nowadays in the Ukraine, Anton Grigoryevich Rubinstein is universally revered as a pioneer of Russian music and Russian music education. With his brother Nikolay he laid the foundations for serious Russian musical education, and his methods are still taught in post-Soviet Russia. It is well known that his family, Jewish in origin, was essentially converted by force to Christianity, and the religious dichotomy is easily observed in Anton’s choice of Biblical subjects for his series of operas that might be described as dramatic oratorios—a case not unlike Mendelssohn’s. Rubinstein famously remarked of his being neither fish nor fowl in terms of his religion, his national heritage (both German and Russian) and his occupation (composer and performer). Also a prominent conductor, he was in his day the most renowned pianist in the world, and the only one that drew comparison with Liszt.
Rubinstein was a prolific composer, and wrote at great speed—often being castigated by his critics (including his admirer Tchaikovsky) for the sheer number of notes he wrote. But his essential importance goes far beyond merely being the first international professional Russian composer; his influence is almost incalculably vast on the succeeding generations of Russians who benefited from Rubinstein’s example, his grasp of Western musical forms allied to an excellence of craftsmanship and an easy melodic fluency. Although a thoroughly cosmopolitan composer, Rubinstein could also incorporate the occasional Russian folk-song or an echo of Russian church music. Although his musical language is in many ways conservative, there are many strikingly individual gestures that were gladly copied by many a more celebrated composer, including figures as disparate as Tchaikovsky and Brahms. In recent years there has been something of a revival of Rubinstein’s music—which fell into almost total desuetude outside Russia from around the early 1920s—and, mostly thanks to the recording industry, we may now hear the six symphonies, the five piano concertos, the violin concerto, the two cello concertos, some of the many songs and chamber works, the four piano sonatas, and much besides. Amongst the twenty operas, only the marvellous Demon is on record (and has been revived in concert in London), although extracts from his other operas may be heard from time to time. We still await a modern performance of The Siberian hunters—much praised by Liszt, who conducted its premiere in Weimar in 1855.
The precise dates of Rubinstein’s compositions have always posed a problem—there are very few documented dates—so often one has to rely upon the date of publication as the best guide. This applies to the Piano Quartet in F major, Op 55bis: it might have been on the stocks for some years, but it was only published (both as a Quintet with winds, and as a Quartet with strings) in 1860. The work is dedicated to Berthold Damcke, the music critic who had championed Rubinstein during the late 1850s in the very public argument fomented by the composer and critic Aleksandr Serov, whose printed taunts of Rubinstein and his non-nationalistic style seem largely to have been fuelled by anti-Semitism.
The reduction in instrument numbers for the string version parallels Beethoven’s similar reworking of his Op 16 quintet/quartet, and is accomplished without loss of any contrapuntal lines, and with some serious enrichment of texture through the use of multiple-stopped chords. This is striking from the first bar: the four wind notes of the original cannot really begin to compete with the firmly arpeggiated string chords. This brilliant flourish, characterized by robust alternations between strings and piano, sets a scene which is immediately contradicted by a lyrical theme from the violin that instantly forsakes the home key of F major, and adopts A flat major instead. The opening gesture soon returns but dissipates, allowing the viola to present the second subject in C major, before a triumphant ending of the exposition. After portentous rumblings from the piano, the startling dissonance that opens the development—B flat forced to cohabit with B natural—can be easily explained away by the ‘rules’ of harmony, but is disturbing for all that. A lovely moment finds the piano in tremolo accompaniment which gives way to quavers then triplets, and the recapitulation of the opening is surrounded by florid arpeggios.
The piano introduces the main material of the scherzo (in A minor): a mercurial theme with many a rhythmic twist. A secondary idea appears from the strings alone, but it is some time before the piano allows this new theme to take hold. The trio (in A major) reminds us immediately of Rubinstein’s sheer melodic fecundity, with a memorable cello theme that stands aloof from any compositional artifice. The scherzo is repeated unaltered.
It is again the cello that takes the principal theme of the C major slow movement. Whilst Rubinstein’s fundamental debt to Mendelssohn is proudly displayed, there are many individual touches and harmonic quirks of quite another order. The culmination of the central working-out of the material finds a gentle triplet accompaniment of delicately woven string motifs that wind the music through some delightfully unexpected modulations, before a gentle cadenza from the piano leads to the reprise of the opening.
The opening salvo of the finale threatens to unseat the expected F major tonality of the work by stressing D minor, but the main theme proper—given to the violin over an alarmingly acrobatic piano part—is firmly in the tonic. The second theme sounds for all the world like a homage to Schumann with its crisp staccato altercations and dotted rhythms, but it is none the worse for this nod to one of Anton Rubinstein’s heroes. This theme is interspersed with a syncopated string melody, with a curiously rattled accompaniment of hand-alternating semiquaver shakes from the piano. A series of longer quiet chords from the piano introduces the development, and the recapitulation soon breaks upon the ear, quite without warning, in A flat major. We are lead to C flat major and then B flat minor before all is restored with the second theme once again establishing F major as the tonal centre. A mighty peroration is suspended in full cry, and the quiet chords of the development return before the final Presto brings the work to a contented close.
Research has failed to unearth details of any performance of the Op 55 Quartet with the composer at the piano, although there are a few documented performances of Rubinstein participating in the Quintet version with wind instruments. On the other hand, he seems to have given many a performance of the Piano Quartet in C major, Op 66, dedicated to the celebrated singer and composer Pauline Viardot-García, with whose complicated ménage—Pauline, her husband and children and the novelist Ivan Turgenev—Rubinstein became acquainted in 1863. The composer had given the piece in concert by early 1864 (including performances with Ferdinand David taking the violin part) and it was published in 1866. In its day it proved to be one of Rubinstein’s most popular works, and it is easy to see why such an urbane and agreeable work should have taken instant hold of the public imagination, from the first hearing of the very calm opening statement of the first theme from the piano, before the strings join in and take it to the heavens. The transition to the second subject contains two important elements: the chromatic theme interleaved with string triplet chords, and the yearning melody characterized by falling sixths which follows, and which contains the seed of the second subject, a truly memorable melody of repeated notes and a rising fourth, repeated in sequence, rounded off with a variant of the yearning theme which introduced it. The powerful development section is based entirely on the first theme. It reaches a tranquil plateau in D flat major before that chord is revealed as having the properties of a Neapolitan sixth, and leads us via a mysterious then dramatic outcry to the recapitulation, where an A flat lingers well into the return of C major. The coda develops the main material in reverse order, and the movement ends in the same calm atmosphere in which it began.
The awkward and deliberately angular motif that informs the scherzo—cast in F major—lends it an air of wicked playfulness, and the clock-ticking broken octave accompaniment that arrives part-way through looks forward to the textures of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov. The ticking unites the scherzo to the trio (not so marked), which continues without tempo change, now in A minor, with the theme given to the viola. The reprise of the scherzo keeps the music in the home key and, after a brief pause for reflection, ends the movement with great delicacy and wit.
The slow movement (in A minor) is really a music drama in miniature. A slow syncopated theme in octaves in the lower register of the piano is punctuated by lugubrious repeated notes from violin and cello and a tender arpeggio from the viola. The second part of the theme is a rocking accompaniment from the piano to an almost static string theme in long notes, whose character is only slowly revealed. The middle section features an elaborate and dramatic solo from the violin, marked patetico, with piano tremolos, and viola and cello interjected chords. The two elements of the first theme return in reverse order, what is now the second part taken through an anguished series of harmonic alterations but finally returned to A minor, and then A major, where a stunningly beautiful transformation occurs. When this is finally interrupted by a dramatic silence, the strings take the rocking accompaniment previously played by the piano, and the piano takes the static notes originally played by the strings, but now restricted to twelve chimes leading to the valedictory version of the main material in the coda. There is no clue as to any possible extra-musical inspiration for this music but one is tempted to imagine some kind of parallel case to the Chopin Ballades, where there is an undisclosed and impassioned literary narrative.
The finale is also dramatic, but generally a bucolic affair, with snappy gestures passed between keyboard and strings, a theme in rising chords through the C major scale that owes a distant kinship with the finale of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op 2 No 3, and some mock-menacing rhythmic contributions from viola and piano. The piano takes the rather melancholy second theme (startlingly Brahmsian!), accompanied pizzicato, and eventually taken over by bowed strings. This theme gives way without a break to what seems to be a Russian folk-song, played in octaves by violin and viola and repeated by cello and piano. The development is very short, but the recapitulation of the opening material is now extended by a chordal motif that may be religious in origin, the chords being alternately played by piano and strings. The first theme resumes and is again interrupted by this chordal theme, which is itself sequentially extended. The second theme and the folk-song return as expected, but the latter is given a further triumphal reprise in an ebullient C major before elements of the opening bring down a festive curtain on this splendid piece.
Leslie Howard © 2014