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Hyperion Records

CDD22007 - Rubinstein: Complete Piano Sonatas
(Originally issued on CDA66017, CDA66105)

Recording details: Various dates
Art Workers Guild, Queen Square, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: September 1996
Total duration: 122 minutes 30 seconds

'Leslie Howard understands Rubinstein's range of temperament very well indeed and I cannot think of another pianist whose advocacy could have been more persuasive … a notable pianistic achievement whose effect is heightened by Hyperion's lifelike digital recording' (Gramophone)

'Impressive, large-scale works… all brilliantly played' (The Tablet)

'Howard est à la fois un prodigieux virtuose et un poète capable de faire surgir de délicates visions de l'ivoire. Si l'on ajoute un imparable sens de la construction conférant une solide assise à ces édifices apolliniens, on comprend que ces sonates ont trouvé avec lui leur référence' (Diapason, France)

Complete Piano Sonatas
Moderato  [4'25]
Allegro con moto  [7'34]
Vivace  [9'32]
Andante  [7'48]
Allegro vivace  [7'51]
Moderato con moto  [15'23]
Allegro vivace  [6'57]
Andante  [10'48]
Allegro assai  [8'18]
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Nowadays there are a great many people who, upon encountering the name Rubinstein, would only think automatically of the Polish pianist, the late Artur Rubinstein. However, our subject (no relation) is the once world-renowned Russian composer and pianist Anton Grigoryevich Rubinstein who was born in Balta Podalia (Ukraine) on 28 November 1829. He died in Peterhof on 20 November 1894.

In his lifetime, Anton Rubinstein was highly regarded as a pianist, as a conductor, as the first great Russian teacher whose methods and administration are still echoed in the modern Russian musical institutions, and as a prolific composer. Although he was certainly a conservative composer, he was also an influential one, and those who are lucky enough to unearth any of the once famous large-scale works can immediately see passages which were imitated by younger composers whose fame eventually eclipsed Rubinstein’s. Although the Romantic revival seems largely to have passed Rubinstein by—he is still recalled for a small handful of piano pieces and songs—there is always a case for reviving music which, in its time, was so well respected and which, in any case, is agreeable and well made.

Rubinstein’s own piano playing was one reason for the original success of his sonatas and concertos. He was, by general concensus, the greatest pianist since Liszt, and there are many accounts of performances which ranged from deeply sensitive to electrifying, though unfortunately he died just a little too early to leave us any recordings. His repertoire was enormous and all-embracing, and his most famous series of concerts was the cycle of seven Historical Recitals with which he toured Europe in 1885. These programmes began with early keyboard music of the English, French, Italian and German schools, moving through all the important Classical and early Romantic composers and ending with a selection of Russian piano music. Schumann and Chopin featured above all others. Only early music of Liszt appeared (Rubinstein felt that Liszt’s later forays into modern harmony were unacceptable) and Brahms was not featured at all (he loathed Brahms’s music, partly because Brahms had borrowed a great many ideas from him without acknowledgement, and had then written a great many unkind things about the very pieces by which he had been influenced).

Cutting himself off from both the conservative school of European music as exemplified by Brahms, and the modern school as exemplified by Liszt, Rubinstein left himself somewhat isolated as a composer, all the more so because he regarded all of his Russian forerunners as distinctly amateur. He mistrusted the growing school of Nationalism and took a very long time to appreciate that Tchaikovsky had any worth. He thought all along that real music died with Schumann and Chopin. Not surprisingly, then, he was a very conservative composer indeed. But this had its virtues. While the Russian school was emerging in something of a hit-or-miss fashion, Rubinstein, with his thorough German background, brought a great deal of order to chaos. He is revered in all books about Russian music for his abiding interest in rich, broad and highly competent musical education, and of course he will always be remembered for having founded the St Petersburg Conservatory. (His brother Nikolai, an equally old-fashioned academic well remembered for his criticisms of the early works of Tchaikovsky, was the director of the Moscow Conservatory.) Rubinstein believed that all potential Russian composers ought to be given better grounding in the essentials of musical language—up to this point the great Classical forms of European music, opera excluded, were almost non-existent in Russia.

Anton Rubinstein was Russian of German extraction, and Christian by virtue of his progenitors’ forcible conversion from Judaism. This admixture served his critics well, as Rubinstein himself admitted when he wrote of his being neither fish nor fowl: ‘For the Russians I am a German, for the Germans a Russian; for the Jews I am a Christian, for the Christians a Jew’ (Autobiography). But it was also the reason for his versatility and solid West-European cultural standards. He was certainly the first really professional Russian composer—precursors like Glinka and Dargomizhky were dilatory tinkers by comparison (at least in technical terms, even if they were more characteristically individual)—and set the example in standards of workmanship by a long, very even and, on the whole, attractive series of symphonies, concertos, sonatas, string quartets, songs, operas and oratorios. In between composing his vast output he travelled broadly, knew all the important musicians of his day, played the piano, had time to found and direct the St Petersburg Conservatory, and made for himself a place of unchallenged importance in the Russian musical life of the day.

It was Rubinstein who wrote the first significant body of Russian sonatas, concertos, symphonies and string quartets, and whose very industry and competence were an inspiration to composers like Tchaikovsky, who found the Nationalist school of Balakirev and his followers to be somewhat amateur and lacking in discipline.

Sadly, Russians did not appreciate his cosmopolitan music for long, and Western Europe criticized him for his sheer Mendelssohnian fluency. While there is justification for some of the criticism, and while it is certain that Rubinstein was no progressive, it is less than just that someone whose influence as a composer was so broad should have been so easily neglected. To mention but one example of his influence: the well-wrought and once-beloved Piano Concerto No 4 is obviously echoed in works as different as the first concerto of Tchaikovsky and the second of Brahms.

Of course, Rubinstein’s musical style shows the heavy influence of Mendelssohn and Schumann, but every now and then a little of Russia breaks through—for example in songs like Der Asra or ‘Gold rolls here before me’ (wonderfully recorded by Chaliapin), in the beautiful treatment of a folk song in the finale of the Piano Quartet, and in the explosive finale of the Piano Sonata No 1. The four piano sonatas are excellent representations of Rubinstein’s style and, for all the signs of derivation from time to time, they are forthright, effective, and often original pieces.

Sonata No 1 in E minor Op 12
The first important fact about this work is simply that it is probably the earliest piano sonata to be composed by a Russian. It dates from around 1847/8 and, as the product of a teenager who must have been quite a pianist already, it is beyond criticism. It has a youthful naivety about it, with echoes of Mendelssohn as well as a certain brashness which Tchaikovsky was to show in his early keyboard works. Typically, Rubinstein uses no Russian folk material, but some pages of this sonata betray an obviously Russian origin. The first movement, Allegro appassionato, is in a brisk 2/4 and the opening builds through a series of grand gestures into a strong repetition of the first theme in triplet octaves. The tremolos and arpeggios which bind the movement together lead to the second subject and testify to Rubinstein’s easy capacity for fluent melody. The development moves to the remote key of F sharp major where the constantly moving accompaniment stops—as it will again when the second subject returns in the recapitulation. The movement ends quietly and seriously after a further reference to the opening phrase.

The Andante largamente is a simple tripartite conception which launches immediately into its long principal melody in C major. The placid mood becomes gradually ruffled during the central section in A minor, where dotted rhythms are contrasted with pulsating triplets. A delicate modulation (German augmented sixth to tonic 6/4, for those who care about such things) ushers in the principal theme over a florid accompaniment, and the last few bars recall the middle section.

The scherzo, Moderato, is a perky piece in A minor with a tastefully ornamented melody which makes much of the alternative possibilities between G sharp and G natural. The second section, which is repeated, spends some time in C major before returning to A minor and a fortissimo change of gear from 3/8 to four bars of 2/8—something which would have delighted Schumann. The little trio in A major subjects its winsome tune to some quite harmless contrapuntal imitation.

The finale, Moderato con fuoco, is the strongest movement. After a preliminary statement of the theme, a grand Russian outburst reintroduces it in octaves with rushing triplet accompaniment. These rhythms dominate the movement, despite the first appearance of the lyrical second subject—an excellent melody by any standards. The entire development section is given over to a fugue on the first theme, but although young Anton Grigoryevich flexes his academic muscles once or twice the fugal manner actually assists the enormous forward propulsion of the movement. When the second theme returns, the irrepressible rhythm of the fugue continues in the bass, to be displaced only by the grandest possible repeat of this theme, with repeated chords and rich arpeggios, leading (through a harmonic progression that would become Tchaikovsky’s favourite method of heralding a climax) to an enthusiastic conclusion.

Sonata No 2 in C minor Op 20
Rubinstein’s second sonata was composed between 1852 and 1854 and was published in 1855. The shortest of the four sonatas, it replaces the conventional slow movement and scherzo with a theme and variations.

Unlike the other sonatas, the second begins with a rather tentative version of the main theme and it is only after subsidiary material, derived from rapidly arpeggiated chords, that the melody appears in full strength. Also a reversal of the conventional role is the fanfare-like second subject. The development is straightforward enough, with excursions into E flat minor and A flat minor, then A major and E major before an enharmonic modulation almost violently restores the home key.

The theme and variations, which Rubinstein often played separately, form a graceful intermezzo, simple and lyrical until the Schumannesque third variation alters the mood. After the mild solemnity imposed by the minor key of the fourth variation, a short coda restores the tranquillity of the beginning.

The finale is another movement in sonata form, characterized by a favourite Rubinstein device of constant very rapid triplets. The excellent second subject is hurried aside and the exposition is repeated. The development relies rather heavily on sequential repetition of phrases from both main themes, but the return is handled very deftly, with almost orchestral colouring. Mendelssohn is clearly the model for the nonetheless effective coda.

Sonata No 3 in F major Op 41
Judging from Rubinstein’s own choice of programmes for the Historical Recitals with which he toured Europe towards the end of his life, the third sonata was his favourite. He included it complete, along with the scherzo of the fourth, and last, sonata and the beautiful variations of the second. Composed around 1853/4 (it is nearly impossible to place Rubinstein’s dates on composition any closer than this), the F major sonata certainly seems conceived for its own composer’s performance. It is characterized by its seriousness and strength as well as the broad scope of the piano writing (within the boundaries of the, by then, conservative tradition of Mendelssohn and Schumann but with more than the occasional anticipation of Brahms).

The two themes of the opening Allegro risoluto e con fuoco are both economically devised, and bear the customary masculine/feminine relationship of the Romantics’ interpretation of Classical sonata form. One phrase of the first theme also does duty for linking material and eventually generates a counter-theme to the return of the second theme. Altogether an imposing piece, this movement also shows a good many strokes of a harmonic personality which, if not unnervingly original, is at least recognizably individual.

The Allegretto con moto is a little masterpiece. Cast in 2/4, in A minor, and marked piano and misterioso, this march-scherzo is full of delicate contrasts between legato and staccato, which continue through the largely half-lit trio section with its succession of almost primitive cadences which might have delighted Mahler.

The intensely romantic Andante at once recalls Schumann and anticipates Brahms. Essentially monothematic (the middle section—moving to E flat minor from the original C?major—derives from the third phrase of the theme), the movement is beautifully balanced between expected and unpredictable changes of harmony.

The fourth movement, Allegro vivace, is a rapid tarantella (like the finale of the second sonata) and set, unusually, in F minor. There are two supplementary themes: a big C major section with repeated chords, and a lyrical melody in D flat. Each of these sections commences its own development at once while the tarantella theme is used for counterpoint and modulation. The recapitulation follows immediately with all the material in F minor then F major, with further development and side-stepping of the inevitable coda, which eventually appears, presto, indisputably to confirm F major for the conclusion. (A later edition has an inexplicably revised coda with an interrupted cadence at the end of the peroration. It is not employed here.)

Sonata No 4 in A minor Op 100
In the more than a quarter of a century which separates the third from the fourth of the Rubinstein sonatas (the fourth appeared in 1880) lie only two of his major works for piano—the Fantasy, Opus 77, and the Theme and Variations, Opus 88, both of which are larger than any of the earlier sonatas and show a very different weight of thought from the dozens of character pieces which otherwise fill the Rubinstein piano œuvre. The fourth sonata turns out to be in this grand mould, on a much broader scale than the others, and is almost leisurely in its expansiveness.

There are two parts to the first theme of the Moderato con moto: a strong rhythmic motif marked appassionato e con espressione and a gentler rising theme accompanied by triplet chords. An animated transition passage leads to the second group of themes: a lyrical melody which is immediately extended and developed, and a codetta which contains two more melodic ideas, the second of which introduces the development after the exposition is repeated. All the themes other than the lyrical second subject play a part in the development, and the opening theme is treated fugally. The regular recapitulation is rounded off with a short coda.

The scherzo is a very powerful affair whose skittish moments are generally interrupted by gruff cadences on the off beats, and there is some occasional mildly experimental dissonance. The calmer trio section curiously calls to mind the Grieg of the Lyric Pieces, with its two-bar phrases and delicate syncopations.

The slow movement is very generous with melody—the exposition contains seven distinct themes, three in the home key of F major before a more animated theme in 5/8 introduces D flat. A modulatory theme leads to the second subject and codetta in C?major. Development is confined to the first of the themes, but the recapitulation introduces many variations in texture and tonality. A second development turns out to be a long valediction on the first subject group.

The finale is a very busy moto perpetuo with a theme appearing in octaves in the bass before it undergoes the first of many transformations. A brief attempt at a lyrical second theme is doomed by the insistent return of the first for development, but a more expressive section intervenes before the recapitulation, in which the second subject finally takes wing before precipitating headlong into the conclusion.

Leslie Howard © 1996

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